‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 8

Link back to Chapter 7

******

Gypsy Lane School was on the west side of Headington, only a five minute drive from Owen and Becca’s medical clinic. It had a long history, but had only been at its current location since the early 1970s, so by Oxford standards the buildings were fairly new. It had about fifteen hundred students, more than twice as large as Meadowvale High School, and to compensate for its size it was divided into six ‘houses’ – smaller groupings that provided a stronger sense of community for the kids.

All students (or ‘pupils’ as the English called them) were also attached to a tutor group of about twelve, and they stayed with the same group all through their school years. The ideal was that they would also stay with the same tutor, but of course teachers leave or retire all the time and new teachers take over from them. My predecessor had been at the school for over twenty years and had been well-liked by the members of her tutor group, and I had the responsibility of trying to find a way to fill her shoes. The members of the group were now in Year Eleven, which put them between the ages of fifteen and sixteen. It was my job not only to take attendance for them and to act as their first resort in times of need but also to give a few minutes of individual tutoring to two or three of them at the end of the day. The idea was that each person in the group would get at least one personal tutorial period per week.

All pupils at my new school were required to wear a formal uniform – school ties and blazers, with skirts for the girls and trousers for the boys. I was expecting this, having gone to school in England myself, but my first sight of a class of kids in school uniform still seemed strange to me after years of teaching in Saskatchewan where jeans and tee-shirts were the order of the day.

“What about you?” Emma asked me as we were having our supper the evening before school began. “Do you have to dress up too?”

“There’s no shirt and tie requirement, but a lot of the men seem to be wearing them. I’ll probably go along with that, at least to start out with”.

“Cool!” she said with a grin; “I am now the daughter of a guy who wears a tie to work! How am I going to cope with this transformation of my hippy dad?”

“Smart ass!”

She laughed; “It’s going to be a different kind of place for you to work, isn’t it?”

“It is. And I don’t think I’m going to have quite the same sort of comfy relationship with the Head as I did with your grandpa or Don”.

“I guess your new Head’s got a bigger staff to work with”.

“Much bigger, and she doesn’t really seem to project an aura of friendliness. She does have the occasional friendly moment but most of the time she’s all business and efficiency. I can’t really imagine her wandering the halls in a baggy sweater chatting to students the way your grandpa used to”.

She grinned at me; “Grandpa had his own style”.

“He did, and I always enjoyed it”.

******

Colin Kingsley was a thin, athletic-looking boy of fifteen with an untidy mop of black hair. I met him on my first day of school when my new tutor group came to my classroom at the beginning of the day. After taking registration I talked with the students for a few minutes and gave them a schedule for their initial tutorial sessions with me, after which I sent them off for their first classes of the day.

I also had Colin in one of my Year Eleven English classes. It was a group of around twenty-five and like almost every class at Gypsy Lane it was quite ethnically diverse, with about half the pupils coming from Asian or African backgrounds. A couple of them were new immigrants, and I had a teaching assistant in the class, a very competent woman who had been born in Iran; her specific assignment was to work with people struggling with English as a second language.

For Colin, however, English was not a second language; it just wasn’t a subject he found either interesting or easy. I set some homework after our first class, and later in the week when we met for our first tutorial session I asked him about it. We were alone in the classroom and I invited him to bring a chair over to my desk; “How’s your English homework going?” I asked.

“Not bad”.

“What have you actually done so far?”

He took out his binder and we went over his work together. It was immediately obvious to me that he was having difficulty grasping some of the concepts I had presented in class, and for the next few minutes I talked him through them again, answering his questions and giving him what I hoped were clearer explanations.  We then passed on to some of his other subjects and for most of them I saw a similar problem.

After my tutorial sessions for the afternoon were over I looked up Colin’s file on my computer and read it carefully; I started with his academic subjects and I quickly saw a pattern. All his teachers gave him credit for trying but his marks were consistently in the fifties, and in some subjects he had struggled to get a pass mark. However, he was doing very well in design and technology, especially woodwork, and he was also an excellent athlete; he had won several medals in track competitions and he played regularly on one of the school football teams.

It was when I was glancing through the personal section of his file that I noticed for the first time whose son he was. The file listed a New Marston address and the parent was listed as Dr. Wendy Howard, with a work address, phone number and email at Merton College. I immediately realized two things: Colin was Mickey’s son, and Mickey and Wendy were no longer together. Mr. Michael Kingsley was listed as a non-resident parent and his home and work addresses were both in London.

Colin had been born in October 1987; he was soon going to turn sixteen. I thought back to that time period. I had left England for Canada in the summer of 1982; I knew Wendy had moved to London that same summer to work on her doctorate, although when I left for Canada she had still been planning to continue her studies in Oxford.

I took off my reading glasses, sat back in my chair and stared out into space. I had received one letter from Wendy after I moved to Canada but it had left many questions unanswered. Why had she suddenly left Oxford – a university she had loved – and gone to London to join Mickey? In their last few months at Oxford they had gone through a traumatic breakup, and when I had left England they had not even been talking to each other. What had happened to change things so dramatically?

I remembered the night of their breakup very clearly. It was a blustery evening in late March of 1982. I had not slept well the night before and I had struggled to stay awake through a full day of teaching at Peers School in Blackbird Leys, where I was doing a three-month practicum. By now, in my final year, I was living in a one-room bed-sitter at the Lincoln College graduate residence on Bear Lane. I had made myself a light supper in the kitchen I shared with two other students, and after cleaning up and reading for a while I had decided to call it a night. My room was small and cluttered, with a single bed, a chesterfield and chair, a packed bookcase, a desk under the window and a small side table where I kept a teapot and an electric kettle.

I was boiling the kettle for a last cup of tea when I heard a quiet knock on my door. When I opened it Wendy was standing there in her duffel coat, and I could see immediately that something was wrong; her long hair was unkempt, as if she had slept on it and forgotten to comb it afterwards, and her eyes were bloodshot from crying.“I’m sorry”, she whispered; “I know you’re probably busy, but…”.

I reached out, took her by the hand and drew her into the room. Closing the door, I turned and put my arms around her. “What is it?” I asked; “What’s wrong?”

I felt her shaking her head against my shoulder, and then after a moment I realized that she was starting to cry. “Oh, Tom”, she sobbed, “I’ve been such an idiot”.

“You’re not an idiot”, I replied as I felt her body beginning to shake.

“I am”, she cried; “I’ve been so blind”.

I held her close, not knowing what to say and wondering what this could possibly be about. We stood like that for a few minutes with her sobbing desperately and me holding her and trying to soothe her. Through the walls I could hear the sound of a radio playing quiet music, and down below on the street a group of students went by on their way home from the Bear Inn, talking loudly as they passed beneath my window.

Eventually Wendy’s crying eased and she slowly disengaged herself from me. “Thanks”, she whispered, digging in her pocket for a handkerchief and reaching up to wipe her eyes and blow her nose. She leaned forward and kissed me softly on the cheek; “Can I have a cup of tea?”

“Of course you can; I was just boiling the kettle. Sit down; sorry about the mess”. I turned back to the side table, plugged in the electric kettle again, let it come to the boil and poured the hot water into my old earthenware teapot. “Do you want me to make you some toast or something?” I asked with my back to her.

“No thanks –  just tea, please”.

I stirred the pot with a spoon and then poured milk into two cups and filled them with tea. I turned and passed her a cup and she smiled gratefully, cradling it in her hands for warmth. She was huddled in my easy chair, her legs pulled up under her chin; she was still wearing her coat and was making no move to take it off.

“Are you cold?” I asked as I took my seat on the chesterfield across from her.

“Perishing”.

“What’s this all about, Wendy?”

For a moment she said nothing; she only sipped cautiously at her tea, staring sightlessly at the floor. Then, tilting her head slightly, she looked at me and said in a desolate voice, “I’ve decided to break up with Mickey”.

If she had told me that she had been diagnosed with a deadly disease I could not have been more astonished. “My God”, I exclaimed; “you’ve been together for years!”

She nodded helplessly; “The thing is, he’s in hospital tonight”.

“In hospital? Why?”

“He took a drug overdose. He’s barely alive”.

I stared at her; “Was he trying to kill himself?”

“I don’t know. I was the one who found him. I went over to his flat just before lunch today and when I let myself in he was lying on his back on the bed. His mouth was open a bit and his arm was extended over the edge of the bed”. I could tell that she was reliving the scene in her mind. “I thought he was dead”, she whispered, her voice trembling slightly; “He looked exactly as if he were dead”.

She gulped down some of her tea. “I called 999 and when the ambulance came I rode to the hospital with him. I’ve been there ever since. I sat in the waiting room for four hours and then I sat beside his bed for two more, while all the time there were books I had to read and papers I had to write. I’ve missed a session with my tutor, and earlier tonight, for the first time, I asked myself why I’m putting myself through this”.

“Did you know about his drug use?”

“I’ve tried to pretend it wasn’t there, but deep down inside I knew I was fooling myself. I’ve been an absolute idiot, Tom”. She raised her mug again and slowly drained it, taking long gulps of the thick steaming tea. When she was finished she said “That tasted good; can I have another cup?”

“Yes of course, but Wendy – is Mickey alright?”

“He woke up about an hour and a half ago”.

“What did he say?”

“He didn’t want to talk to me about it. I don’t think he wanted to admit what he’d tried to do”.

“So what did you do?”

“I left him and walked the streets for a while and then I came here”.

“Let me make you something to eat”.

She shook her head, her eyes staring into space. “I don’t want anything to eat”, she whispered; “I just want another cup of tea”.

I got up, took her mug over to the side table and refilled it. When I turned back to her I saw that she was hanging her duffel coat on the peg on the back of my door. She turned to me, smiled weakly and took the mug from my hand. “Thanks”, she breathed softly. “And I’m sorry; I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but it’s just that my stomach feels a bit unsettled and I’m afraid I might…”

“You don’t have to explain yourself to me, Wendy”.

“Thanks”. She began to sit down again, then hesitated, put the mug down on the arm of the chair and said, “Tom, would you just hold me again for a minute, please? I know I’m not being fair to you, but…”

I raised my hand and covered her lips with my fingers. Then, stepping forward, I put my arms around her and held her close. Again, we stood there for a long time, and even though I had often dreamed about this kind of bodily contact with her – even though I could feel the soft swell of her breasts through her sweater – I somehow felt no sexual stirring in my body.

Eventually she pulled away from me gently, smiled gratefully and sat down again. “I expect you’ve often wondered about my relationship with Mickey”.

“It does seem strange sometimes”.

“I’m not sure I fully understand it myself, but I think I started going out with him as a way of rebelling against my mum and dad”.

“He does look a bit like every minister’s nightmare”.

“Yes – not that I had much to rebel against; my mum and dad couldn’t have been more supportive and understanding. But living in a vicarage was so conventional and when I got into my teens it just seemed stifling. It was safe and predictable and part of me liked that, but another part of me was longing for some danger or risk. And that was when Mickey asked me to go out with him”.

“How old were you?”

“Sixteen; I had just finished my O-Levels. I’d got ten, and Mickey had struggled through five. He’d moved to Halstead a year or two before; his dad had made a lot of money in the city and then moved out to Essex to live the life of the nouveau riche. He bought a big house on the edge of town and tried to play the part of a country gentleman”.

“I suppose that’s something like what my father did when he moved to Northwood”.

She nodded and drank some tea, staring down at the floor. “Honestly, Mickey and I were so different; I’m sure everyone who knew me thought I was out of my mind. But he was out of the ordinary and fun to be around, and he played loud rock music on an electric guitar. And of course he was rich, and I’d been raised in a vicarage where money was always tight. Mickey took me on dates on his motor bike and drove recklessly fast, and I was terrified but I loved it too. I knew my parents were worried but somehow that just made it even more of a thrill”.

“So you fell in love with him”.

“Totally”.

“But you didn’t become friends?”

She shook her head, staring out into space again. “We argued a lot; there are lots of things we’ve never seen eye to eye on. But that’s never changed the fact that we were in love with each other”.

She got up and walked over to my desk under the window; I had left the curtains open, and she stared out at the street below. “Why am I telling you this?” she asked with her back to me. “I don’t know; I’ll probably wish I hadn’t in the morning. I’m usually pretty shy about personal things but it’s almost like I’m drunk tonight, even though I haven’t had anything except tea”.

“Wendy, are you sure you’re okay?”

She shook her head, her back still toward me. “I’ve been sleeping with Mickey since I was seventeen. He wanted it sooner than that but I held out against him for a long time; I was determined not to get pregnant. The first time we didn’t use any birth control; I was fortunate but I decided not to try my luck again. I insisted he use protection after that. He’s a wild lover, just like he’s wild at everything else he does. Jesus Christ! Why am I telling you this? It’s as if I’ve become someone else; you must think I’ve really gone over the edge!”

She turned around to face me again, leaning back against the desk, her arms folded across her front. “Tom, have I made the right decision?” she asked in a small voice.

“I don’t know, but I’ve always thought it’s a bit risky to have a long-term relationship with someone with a serious drug problem”.

“But will my breaking up with him help him or will it make it worse? Will he just go even deeper into addiction as a result? I don’t think I’d be able to live with that”.

“But can you take responsibility for that? After a certain point doesn’t preserving your own sanity take priority?”

I saw her lip beginning to tremble, and a tear ran down her face. “I love him so much”, she whispered desperately. “I can’t imagine living without him”.

I stood up, stepped toward her and put my arms around her again. I felt her hands come around my back and her head coming down on my shoulder; her body was not shaking this time but I could feel her tears on my face.

“You’re such a gentleman”, she whispered into my shoulder after a while. “Thanks for being here for me”.

“Not at all”, I replied softly, drawing back and smiling at her. “Now you sit down and drink this tea, and I’m going out to the kitchen to make you some dry toast. You’ve had nothing to eat since breakfast and you’ve had a shock; your body needs some nourishment, whether you feel like it or not, and dry toast shouldn’t upset your stomach too much”.

She looked at me for a moment and then nodded. “Okay”, she whispered; “Thank you”.

******

I was brought back to the present by the sound of a knock on my classroom door, and I looked up to see my department head, Kathy McFarlane, standing there in the open doorway. She was in her mid fifties; her greying blond hair was cut just above her shoulders and she dressed with a sort of unstudied casualness that I found charmingly eccentric.

“Hello there”, I said; “Is this a social call, or…?”

“I just thought I’d pop in and make sure you’re all right. I know how overwhelming the first week at a new school can be”.

“True enough. Come on in and grab yourself a chair”.

She came into the room, found a chair and sat down beside my desk. “How have your classes been so far?”

“Pretty good, although it’s all a bit of a blur right now: so many names to try to attach to faces. And it’s been a while since I’ve had to really apply myself to learning a lot of names at once; this is the first time I’ve started at a new school since 1982”.

“Was that when you went to Canada?”

“Yes”.

“Right – you’ve only taught at the one school, haven’t you?”

“Yes – how about you?”

“I taught in Norwich for eleven years before I came here in 1988”.

“Is that where you’re from?”

“No, I’m actually from the West Country, from Plymouth”.

“You’re a long way from home”.

She grinned; “Not as far as you were in Canada”.

“I guess not”.

“Is it normal in Canada for a teacher to stay so long in one school?”

I shrugged; “It varies. There were a few of us at Meadowvale school who had been there for a long time; mind you, some of them had been born there”.

“They’d come back to teach in their home town?”

“Yes”.

“You wouldn’t find that very often here – at least, not in a small town”.

“No, probably not”.

“What kept you there for so long, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“I married a local girl, and she was kind of attached to Meadowvale. But it turned out to be a good fit for me too; I liked it there”.

She nodded at the small framed pictures of Kelly and Emma on the corner of my desk. “Is that your family?”

“Yes, but my wife died two and a half years ago so it’s just Emma and me now”.

“I’m very sorry to hear that”, she said quietly.

“Thanks”. I smiled at her; “What about you – do you have a family?”

“Yes; my husband is Jim, and we have two children, Matthew and Alanna. Matthew’s in his third year of a PPE degree at St. Edmund Hall, and Alanna’s about to start a music degree at Lincoln College”.

“I went to Lincoln; that’s where I did my English degree and my teaching certificate. But what’s ‘PPE’?”

“Politics, Philosophy and Economics”. She grinned; “My son wants to change the world”.

“Well, I’m in favour of that. Does it run in the family?”

“His dad’s a Baptist pastor, so I suppose you could say it does”.

“I guess. So your husband’s a pastor?”

“Yes. We met in my first school in Norwich; he was just starting out in his first church”.

“My daughter and I are churchgoers too. We’ve been attending Anglican churches for the past few weeks, but we’re actually Mennonites and we’d like to find something a little closer to what we’re used to”.

“Jim will be very interested to hear that. He’s been reading lots of American Mennonite writers over the past few years; he’s quite taken with them”.

“He’s Baptist, you say?”

“Yes – he’s the pastor of Banbury Road Baptist Church in Summertown. It’s not a big church; we get about ninety people at our Sunday morning service – maybe a bit more in term time. But there’s a good representation of different age groups, including some families with small children, and we always have a few students from year to year as well. It’s got a nice sense of community”. She smiled at me again; “You’d be more than welcome to try it out if you like”.

“We might just do that; our church in Saskatchewan isn’t much bigger than that. What time’s the service?”

“Ten-thirty”.

“Maybe we’ll come this Sunday”.

“We’ll look out for you, then”.

“Sounds good”. I frowned and said, “Kathy, on a completely different subject, do you know Colin Kingsley?”

“I had him in my classes when he was in years seven and eight; why do you ask?”

“He seems to be struggling a bit”.

“Yes, he’s not really academic. He’s very good at sports though, and he’s great with his hands; you should get Simon Bennett to show you some of the things he’s built in the woodwork shop”.

“He’s the design and technology teacher?”

“Yes”.

“That’s just about the only subject Colin gets good marks in, isn’t it?”

“Yes, that’s where he really shines. I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes a career out of it, actually; Simon told me he’s one of the best in his class”.

“I don’t know if I’ve met Simon yet”.

“I think you’d enjoy him. He’s got a soft spot for the kids who don’t fit the academic mould”.

“Sounds like someone I should get to know”.

“That might be a good idea”.

******

When I opened our front door just after six, the Dire Straits tune ‘Money for Nothing’ was blasting out of the stereo speakers at high volume. “Anyone home?” I shouted as I closed the door behind me and stepped into the living room. Emma appeared immediately from the kitchen with her sleeves pushed up to her elbows and a paring knife in her hand; “Sorry!” she said with a grin, dancing her way across the floor and reaching out to turn down the volume.

“Well, that felt just like old times!” I said.

She laughed; “Mom would get home from work and put her rock music on loud, and you’d come home and fall asleep in your chair!”

“Be nice now!”

“Did you have a good day?”

“Pretty good, thanks”. I sniffed at the air; “What’s that delicious smell?”

“It’s a new chicken curry recipe I got from Auntie Becca. Supper’s nearly ready; would you like a cup of tea?”

“Would I? I could murder a cup of tea right now! Are you sure you don’t want to stay home permanently and become my housekeeper?”

“Tempting, but I don’t think so”.

“Too bad. So what was your day like?”

“Really good actually; come into the kitchen and I’ll tell you all about it. I’ll pour your tea too; I made a pot about ten minutes ago”.

I followed her through to the kitchen-diner; she poured me a mug of tea and I sat down at the  dining table to drink it. The back of our house faced roughly northwest, and through the windows I could see that the early evening sun was painting the cloudy sky in multiple hues of red and orange.

Emma poured herself some tea and turned back to one of the work surfaces where she was cutting up raw vegetables. “I took resumés around to about ten nursing homes”, she said, “some in Marston, some in Headington”.

“What kind of reception did you get?”

“Well, some places weren’t interested at all and some were very nice but said they didn’t have any openings right now. But one place just round the corner here in Marston said they didn’t have any paid positions at the moment but they were always looking for volunteers, and would I be interested in a volunteer position?”

“And you said…?”

She turned to me with a smile on her face. “I said I’d be okay with that, so I’m going back tomorrow to meet their volunteer coordinator!”

I gave her a triumphant high-five; “Are you happy?”

“Yeah, I am”, she replied, turning back to the work surface. “It’s not nursing training but it’s a start, and as long as you don’t mind supporting me I don’t mind going slowly”.

“This is fairly close, you say?”

“It’s on Marston Road, a ten minute walk from here”.

“Nice! I hope it works out”. I drank some tea, feeling it warming me all the way down, and gave her what I hoped was a penetrating glance. “Are you sure you’re okay with this? Are you sad you’re not starting university this Fall?”

“Kind of, but it can’t be helped, so there’s no point in worrying about it”. She turned to face me again. “Well, I think this food is just about ready. There’s also a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, courtesy of Uncle Rick, if you’d like a glass with your supper?”

“Rick brought us some wine?”

“Yes – he was here about fifteen minutes ago. He seemed surprised that you weren’t home yet”, she continued with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, “but I told him that teachers have to work long hours sometimes!”

“Oh you can be wicked sometimes, Emma Dawn!”

“Thank you, thank you!” she replied, giving me a little bow. “Anyway, he wants you to call him tonight”.

“Wonder what that’s about?”

“He didn’t say”.

“Apparently he hasn’t noticed that you don’t care for wine”.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t have any, Dad”.

“I think I might just have a glass”.

******

Later that night while Emma was reading in her room I made three calls. The first was to my brother; I heard the phone ring twice and then he picked it up and said “Richard Masefield”.

“Hi, it’s Tom”.

“Hello there – how’s your first week going?”

“Pretty well, thank you, and we had some good wine with supper tonight too”.

“I’m glad you enjoyed it. It was meant to go with an invitation; Eric’s turning seventeen a week on Saturday and we’re having a party for him. He seems to have taken a shine to Emma so we were wondering if you two would like to come along?”

“I’m sure we would”.

“Good. He’s got a few friends coming and our family will be there too, including Auntie Brenda”.

“Sounds good; I’m sure Emma will be excited about it. What time?”

“Come any time after about four. Dinner will be about six”.

“Right; we’ll be there”.

“Good. Well, see you next weekend then”.

******

My second call was to Owen. It was answered after one ring, and I heard him say, “Fosters”.

“Hi, it’s me”.

“Hi you; what’s up?”

“Did you know that Wendy’s back in Oxford?”

“Wendy Howard?”

“Yes”.

“No, I didn’t know that. Have you seen her?”

“No, but in a manner of speaking I keep bumping into her”.

“Oh?”

“A couple of weeks ago I found a book she’d written in Blackwell’s – an introduction to George Eliot. Since then I’ve found out that it’s her third book; they’ve all been about George Eliot and they seem to be getting some attention”.

“What’s she doing in Oxford?”

“Teaching English at Merton”.

“That’s a nice coincidence, isn’t it? Have you tried to contact her?”

“Not yet, but I expect I’ll run into her sooner or later; she has a son in my tutor group at school”.

“I didn’t even know she had a son”.

“Neither did I. You and I haven’t talked much about Wendy for a long time; you weren’t really in touch with her after she went to London, were you?”

“No. To tell you the truth, I got the impression she was deliberately cutting herself off. You heard from her though, didn’t you?”

“Just one letter after I went to Canada, and then silence. Did she ever say anything to you about why she changed her mind about doing her doctorate here?”

“No. Mind you, I hardly saw her after you left. If you remember, she didn’t even tell me she was leaving; I heard it from Sue Morris. I was really surprised to hear that she and Mickey were a couple again”.

“Well, they aren’t a couple any more”.

“No?”

“No – Mickey’s listed on his son’s file as a non-resident parent. His home and work addresses are in London”.

“Does the file have contact information for Wendy?”

“Of course”.

“Why don’t you ring her or send her an e-mail?”

“I’m thinking about that”.

“Good. Give her my regards; it would be nice to see her again”.

“It would. Well, I’d better let you go; I’ve got some schoolwork to do”.

“Are you going to come over again and play some more tunes?”

“Definitely”.

“I’ll hold you to that”.

I laughed; “Okay. Goodnight Owen”.

“Goodnight Tom; don’t work too hard”.

“I’ll do my best”.

******

I sat in silence for a couple of minutes, and then I took out a piece of paper with Wendy’s contact information on it, picked up the cordless phone and keyed in her number. It rang a couple of times, and then it was answered and I heard her voice; “Hello?’”

“Wendy?”

“Yes”.

“This is Tom Masefield”.

There was silence for  moment and then, in a voice that sounded just a little bit too cheerful, she said, “Tom – how lovely to hear from you!”

“I got your number from Colin’s file; he’s in my tutor group”.

“Yes – he told me his new tutor group teacher was a Mr. Masefield who’d just moved back from Canada, but I wasn’t sure if it was you or not. What brings you back to England?”

“My dad, actually – he’s been diagnosed with lymphoma. He’s probably only got about eighteen months to live”.

“I’m very sorry, Tom; how are things between you and him?”

“That’s one of the reasons I came back – to try to work on that”.

“This must be a difficult time for you, then”.

“We have our good days and our bad days”.

“I’m sure”. She paused, and then said, “So you were in Canada for what, about twenty years?”

“Twenty-one. I got married there and had a daughter; she’s seventeen now, going on eighteen”.

“Congratulations! I was married to Mickey for a while, but unfortunately it didn’t work out. We’ve been apart for a few years now”.

“I saw in Colin’s file that you and Mickey were living separately. I’m sorry, Wendy”.

“Thank you”.

There was an awkward silence for a moment and then I said, “So you’re teaching at Merton?”

“I am – I’m an English tutor there. I came back to Oxford about six years ago, just after Mickey and I split up”.

“Is it going well?”

“Actually I love it; I love the teaching and I love the reading and studying I get to do as well. And of course Merton’s a fantastic place”.

“Familiar ground for you”.

“Yes”.

“Do you still sing?”

“I’m an occasional member of a couple of choirs. How about you?”

“I’ve kept it up over the years. I was part of a trio in Canada for a while; my sister-in-law played the fiddle and another teacher friend played mandolin and banjo. They were really bluegrass players but I taught them some traditional English songs too”.

“You were always such a good musician”.

“Thanks. Speaking of music – I was talking to Owen earlier. I told him I was thinking of calling you and he asked me to pass on his regards”.

She laughed softly; “So you’re both back in Oxford now?”

“He’s never left, actually; he’s a senior partner in a medical practice in Headington. He’s married to Lorraine and they have two children”.

“Have you been playing music together yet?”

“Once or twice. Of course, if you wanted to come and join us…”

She laughed softly; “It’s been a long time”.

“Yes, it has”.

“Do you still enjoy walking?”

“I do, when I get the time. I’ve actually done a lot of hiking in the Rocky Mountains over the years. How about you?”

“I walk every day. I actually like walking down to college if I can make it work with my morning commitments”.

“That’s a good distance”.

“It takes me about forty minutes”.

“I walk to school every day too, if I can. We live in New Marston, not far from you”.

“Whereabouts?”

“We’re on Croft Road”.

“That is close to us; we’re on Bowness Avenue”.

For a moment neither of us spoke, and then she said, “Well, it’s been lovely to hear from you, Tom”.

“You too; can I give you my number?”

“Of course; just let me get a pen”.

I gave her the numbers for my land line and my mobile, and then I said “Maybe we can get together some time; it would be lovely to see you after all these years”.

“That would be nice. I expect I’ll see you at school sooner or later, for parent-teacher interviews”.

“Yes – they’ll be coming up in a few weeks”.

“Well, thanks again for ringing, Tom. Good night”.

“Good night, Wendy”.

I put the phone down, sat in silence for a minute, and then got up and went out to the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea.

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‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 7

Link back to Chapter 6

******

On the last Saturday of August Emma and I moved into our new home in Marston, on the outskirts of northeast Oxford, just north of Headington. It was a small terraced house on a quiet pre-war cul-de-sac, with a living room, kitchen-diner and bathroom downstairs, and three bedrooms upstairs; a small windowed front porch was obviously a more recent addition. Behind the house was a lengthy yard backing onto a recreation ground, with an area of lawn, a shed, and a little stone patio by the back door. The previous tenants had created a small vegetable garden in one corner of the yard, and although they had cleaned out most of the produce before they left, there were still a few raspberry canes and some tomato plants for us to enjoy.

Owen and Lorraine and Becca came to help us move in, and to my surprise Eric and Sarah did too; Alyson dropped them off early that morning, and we were soon glad of their assistance. The removal truck arrived bright and early at eight o’clock with our shipment from Canada; we had not sent much in the way of furniture, so it only took a couple of hours to bring everything into the house, even though there were many boxes of books and personal effects. After the movers left, Owen and I drove around with a rental truck to his place, to Becca’s flat, and to my parents’ house out in Northwood, picking up the items they were giving us for our use while we were in England, and the second-hand pieces we had bought for ourselves.

It was a long day of moving and arranging furniture, unpacking boxes, and putting things away in cupboards and closets. We set up the living room with two armchairs facing each other on either side of the gas fire, a small sofa, and a couple of bookshelves on the inside walls. At the back of the room a cased opening led through to the kitchen and dining area, with a door out to the back yard.

“Garden!” said Owen with a smile on his face as he and Emma stood there in the open doorway with mugs of tea in their hands.

“Yard!” she replied with a grin.

“Yards are paved”, he insisted; “If it’s got grass, it’s a garden”.

“Gardens are where you grow vegetables; yards are where you run on the grass”.

“The Brits and the Canadians”, Owen observed; “Two peoples divided by a common language!”

By late afternoon we had assembled the beds and manhandled most of the other furniture to where we wanted it; our clothes were in the closets and dressers, the books were on the shelves upstairs and down, and the dishes and appliances were in their proper places in the kitchen. I had also set up my home office in the smallest bedroom upstairs, with my desk and laptop computer, a bulletin board on the wall, a couple more bookshelves, and a small armchair in the corner of the room.

“An armchair and books”, Owen said with a grin; “Looks like a good place to work!”

“It’s all about making people believe you’re busy!” I replied.

Emma and Becca were busy hanging our framed family photographs on the wall in the living room, and Sarah and Eric came over to watch. “Those are amazing pictures”, Sarah said, staring at an old black and white that was obviously a wedding photograph. “Who are these people?”

“The couple in the middle are my great-grandparents, Dieter and Erika Reimer”, Emma replied; “It was taken on their wedding day in 1921”.

“I thought it looked pretty old; was it taken in Canada?”

“No, it was taken in the Chortitza Mennonite Colony in Russia”.

“So your great-grandparents came from Russia?” Eric said; “I don’t think I knew that”.

“They were kind of like refugees, I guess. It was just after the Communists took over at the end of the First World War. There was a civil war, and starvation and typhus, and persecution. Mom told me our family lost about thirty-five members at that time”.

Sarah stared at her; “So your great-grandparents had a lucky escape?”

“Yeah. Altogether there were about twenty-one thousand Mennonites who came from Russia to Canada”.

Sarah looked at the photograph again. “Do you know who these other people are?”

“Not all of them”. Emma pointed to the two older couples on either side of the bride and groom; “These are my great-great grandparents, Peter and Anna Reimer and Franz and Helena Rempel”.

“You’ve got a lot more sense of your family history than we do”, Eric said to her.

“Well, on my mom’s side, anyway; Mom really worked at it and she told me a lot of the stories her grandparents had told her. With the Masefields and the Campions, not so much; Dad wasn’t able to tell me much about them”.

“It wasn’t something we talked about much when we were growing up”, I explained, “and I didn’t have the opportunity to ask my grandparents about it the way Kelly did. I never thought very much about it at the time, but I’m sorry now that I didn’t raise the subject with them while they were still alive”.

******

Emma made pizza for supper, along with a pot of strong tea, and we ate sitting around the living room. Owen had brought his guitar with him in case we had the opportunity for some music; Eric had noticed it, and after supper he asked us if we would play. So I ran upstairs to get my Larrivée and we played some traditional folk songs for about half an hour. At one point I asked Eric if he would like to play a tune for us, but he shook his head; “I’m nowhere near good enough to follow you”, he said.

So Owen and I sang a couple more songs, and then as Becca was getting up to make a fresh pot of tea we heard a car pulling up in front of the house. Emma turned and glanced out of the window; “Grandma and Grandpa are here”, she said.

I got up, went out to the front door and opened it to welcome my parents. My father was walking with a stick, and I noticed again how bent he was. My mother was wearing a light summer dress; she smiled at me and said, “Is it a good time for us to come and have a look at the establishment?”

“That would be fine”, I replied, standing aside to let them in the door. “If we’d known when you were coming we’d have made another pizza and waited supper for you”.

“Don’t worry about that”, she said, giving me a kiss on the cheek; “We had an early tea and then we thought we’d drive in for a little while”.

“How are you feeling, Dad?” I asked.

“Not bad”.

I watched as he stepped into the living room, straightened up slowly and surveyed the scene. The whole ground floor could have fit easily into the large piano room at the back of my parents’ house; looking at it through my father’s eyes I knew it must have seemed ridiculously cramped.

Emma went up to him and kissed him on the cheek; “Would you like the tour, Grandpa?”

“Certainly, my dear; lead the way!”

So she took them back and showed them the kitchen diner, and then took them out to the back yard, where she and my father had a lively discussion for a few minutes about plants and vegetables. After they had been upstairs for a quick look at the bedrooms and my home office Becca poured them tea, and we all sat in the living room and drank another cup with them. My father was sitting in the most comfortable armchair we possessed, beside the gas fireplace, and my mother had moved a wooden chair from the dining set over beside him. They were quiet, and I knew without a word being spoken that my father was not impressed with our little house and the way of life it represented.

“Uncle Tom and Owen were just playing some music for us, Grandma”, Sarah said.

“Well – I’m sorry I missed it!”

Eric smiled at Owen and me; “You could play a couple more”.

Owen glanced at Emma; “I think it’s time for you and your dad to play us a song from your side of the Atlantic”.

“Well, my guitar’s upstairs”.

He picked up his guitar by the neck and held it out to her; “Be my guest”.

I saw the surprise on her face; “Wow – you’re going to let me play your Oberon?”

“There aren’t many people I’d trust with it but you’re definitely one of them”.

She took it from him carefully, strummed a couple of chords and looked at me with a grin; “How about ‘The Blackest Crow?’”

“We’re going to miss your Auntie Ellie’s fiddle”.

“We’ll be okay”.

This was a song I had learned from Ellie Reimer in my early years in Meadowvale; like many old ballads it was about two lovers parted by circumstance. Ellie had originally taught me a faster version of it but in recent years I had slowed it down a little, bringing out the melancholy feel of the song. When we finished singing it there was silence in the room for a moment and then my mother sighed and said, “My goodness, that’s a sad one”.

“Beautifully sung, though”, Lorraine said; “Great harmonies, Emma”.

“Thanks”, she replied shyly.

“Do another one”, Owen said; “I don’t often get to hear you two play together”.

Emma grinned at me; “Something more cheerful?”

“What did you have in mind?”

“How about ‘Pretty Fair Maid in the Garden’?”

“Works for me”.

******

We sang a couple more songs and then sat and visited for another half hour or so before my parents excused themselves. My mother helped my father get out of his chair, the others in the room murmured their goodbyes, and Emma and I followed them slowly out of the front door into the warm early evening air. Just before we got to their car my father stopped, turned to me and said, “Tom, you surely can’t be serious about living in this house?”

“It’ll be fine for us, Dad”.

“It’s ridiculously small! Why didn’t you ask me to help you get something better?”

“As I keep telling you, I have money. If I wanted to rent a bigger house I could do it”.

“Then why don’t you? There’s absolutely no reason for you to be in a place like this; I’m very sorry to see you living at this level”.

I smiled at him. “There’s a living room and a kitchen, a bedroom for each of us with an extra room for a home office, and a good yard out back. What more do we need? Trust me – we’ll be okay”.

“I suppose you think you’ve got something to prove?”

“We like living simply – we always have. I understand that you see things differently and I’m not trying to be critical; you’ve made choices about the way you want to live and we’ve done the same”.

Emma had been standing at my side, listening quietly and watching our faces intently. Now she spoke up: “Last year when we were in Mexico we saw poor people living in one-room shacks, sometimes two or three families to a house. Mom and Dad used to talk about that kind of thing when I was a little girl – how it was our responsibility to live simply, so that we could help people who were worse off than us. I’m sure there are a lot of people living in poverty in England, too. This place would probably look pretty good to some of them”.

I could see my father was surprised by her intervention and the quiet conviction with which she spoke, but he was quick with his reply. “The last thing the poor need is handouts from you, Emma – they already get more than enough. People in this country know a good thing when they see it. There are lots of people who refuse to work because they can get more money living on government benefits. You don’t know this country; you don’t know how these people play the system. It doesn’t help them if people like you take a sentimental attitude to them. That only encourages their irresponsibility”.

“How many of them do you know?” she asked quietly.

“What do you mean?”

“Do you know any of them? Do you know their names?”

“Don’t be ridiculous – how would I know their names?”

“Then how do you know so much about how they work the system?”

I saw his face reddening; he was not accustomed to being contradicted by a seventeen-year old. He opened his mouth to reply but my mother intervened; “Well”, she said dryly, “you two aren’t going to resolve this issue in a five minute conversation standing by the car. Come and see us again soon, Emma, and you and your grandfather can debate poverty and social assistance to your hearts’ content. Frank, we should be getting home”.

“You’re probably right”, he admitted; “I am getting a bit tired”.

My mother gave me a hug, and then turned to Emma, put her hand on her arm and said, “It was so lovely to hear you play again”.

“Thanks, Grandma”.

They gave each other a hug and then Emma stepped up to her grandfather, kissed him on the cheek and said, “It was nice to see you, Grandpa; have a good night”.

“Thank you; good night to you too”.

He and my mother turned and got into the Jaguar. Emma and I watched as the car pulled away down the quiet street, waved as it disappeared around the corner and then turned back toward the house. I put my arm around her shoulders and kissed the top of her head.

“I shouldn’t have spoken like that, should I?” she said.

“Why not?”

“I don’t think he liked it when I spoke back to him”.

“Maybe not, but he’ll get over it. Just so you know – I was proud of you”.

“Thanks”, she replied softly as we went back into the house together.

******

The hour was late; Owen and Lorraine had taken Eric and Sarah home before driving back to their own place and Emma had decided to have an early night. But Becca had brought a bottle of red wine with her and she and I had decided to sit outside for a while. We were sitting in a pair of old lawn chairs with only the dim light from the back window providing illumination for us. The night air was warm, we were into our second glass, and the conversation had turned to my father’s health.

“He’s getting weaker, isn’t he?” I said.

“I’m afraid so. You know what chemo’s like”.

“Yeah – it seems to be really tiring him out”.

“They may have to adjust the dosage if it’s too much for him. That’s always a toss-up; if it’s not strong enough it doesn’t have any effect on the cancer cells, but if it’s too strong it’s too toxic for the patient”.

“Too bad he couldn’t get some energy from sheer bloody-mindedness!”

I saw the smile playing around her lips in the semi-darkness. “Was he giving you some grief?”

“He doesn’t approve of our tiny little house, but then I didn’t expect him to”.

“It is a bit small, Tommy; are you sure you and Emma are going to be okay here?”

“We’ll be fine”.

She drained her wine glass, put it down on the garden table between us and said, “Do you find yourself feeling torn?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, I’m used to being on the defensive with Dad, and as you say, he’s still bloody-minded enough sometimes to warrant that. But then when you look at how frail he’s getting…”

“A little confusing, isn’t it?”

“Really confusing – I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel”.

“How do you feel?”

“Helpless, angry, sad…”

I held out my hand to her; “Are you okay, Little Becs?”

She reached out and grasped my hand; “It’s been a long time since you called me that”.

******

Much later that night I found myself lying awake in my bed, thinking about my sister.

I was twelve years old when she was born and I very quickly took a liking to this new member of our household. I helped my mother care for her when she was still small; later, as she was growing up, I played with her and read to her and took her out for walks and generally enjoyed her company. During my university years, even though I stayed away from home as much as I could, there were times on the weekends when I simply took the bus to Northwood, arrived at the front door and explained that I wanted to spend some time with Becca. My mother was aware of the close relationship between my sister and me, and she sometimes drove her into Oxford on a Saturday so that she could spend the day with me.

She was nearly twelve when I moved to Canada. I had kept my plans a secret from everyone except Owen and Wendy, because I was afraid that if my father found out, he would find a way to stop me. So I had told my family I was going to be working in Reading; I had not told them the truth until a week before I left for Canada. Becca was devastated by the news and by my dishonesty toward her, and for two years she wouldn’t talk to me on the phone or read any of my letters. It was the only time in our lives when there was anything like a rift between us.

However, Kelly visited England with me a few weeks before our wedding, and in her own inimitable way she won my little sister over and brought the two of us back together. Two months later Becca came to Meadowvale with my mother; Kelly had invited her to be one of the bridesmaids at our wedding. She and my mother spent a week in Meadowvale along with Owen and Lorraine; they met Kelly’s extended family, and at my mother’s prompting Becca even made a little speech at our wedding reception.

When she was sixteen she went through a very difficult time; she had recently gone through a bad breakup and had spent the last few months of the school year in a deep depression. She called us in tears one day; Kelly talked to her for a while and then invited her to come and visit us, and in the end she spent almost the entire summer with us. The previous year, only six months after Emma was born, Kelly had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After surgery she had gone through several months of chemotherapy, concluding in November, and in February she had been given a clean bill of health. However, she had taken a long time to get her energy back, and when the summer arrived she was still not as strong as she wanted to be.

Emma was nineteen months old that summer and Becca quickly warmed to her. The four of us did some traveling together; we went camping in the mountains in Alberta, swam in some of the prairie lakes, went to the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, and had lots of time to talk. Many nights that summer Kelly and Becca sat up talking till late; I would get up to use the bathroom at one or two in the morning and find them still talking quietly in the living room, or out on the deck with the citronella candles burning to keep the mosquitos away. My wife was twelve years older than my sister, but she was a patient and sympathetic listener and Becca was able to work through a lot of personal stuff with her. From that time on I knew that Becca saw Kelly as the older sister she had never had, and their relationship was always close.

After that summer we tried to see her once a year; if we were not going to England we would send her the air fare to come and visit us. She was in constant touch with us during her nine years of medical training, culminating in 1997 when she had joined Owen’s medical practice in Headington. She came to us just after Christmas during Kelly’s last illness, and again in April for a week. She came back yet again in June for Kelly’s funeral, staying afterwards for a month to help Emma and me, although I knew she was almost as stricken by grief as we were.

Despite our closeness there were still some things about her that were a mystery to me. It was true she had rejected some of the Masefield family stereotypes, but in many ways she was every bit as driven in her medical career as my father and my brother were in their lives as lawyers. I knew this was the main reason Mike Carey had left her; he had explained to her quite openly that he was looking for more than leftover minutes at the end of each week. That had been hard for Becca to hear; she and I had talked about it for hours by phone and e-mail. Since I had moved to Oxford I had been gratified to see the amount of time she had taken off work to spend with Emma and me, and I thought that perhaps she was learning to find a better balance in her life. Secretly I indulged the hope that Emma and I could have a good effect on her in this way.

******

I rolled over in bed and glanced at the clock; one-thirty in the morning. I smiled to myself; four cups of tea followed by two glasses of wine had obviously not been a good idea. I sat up in bed, clicked on my bedside lamp, waited for a minute for my eyes to adjust to the light and then put on my reading glasses and reached for the book on my bedside table.

A few minutes later I heard Emma’s bedroom door open, and then the creak of the stairs, and I guessed she had gone down to get a glass of water. After a moment I heard her coming back up again, and then the sound of a gentle knock on my door. “Come in”, I said quietly.

The door opened and she came into the room, her hair messy from sleep, a half empty glass of water in her hand. “I saw the light under your door”, she said.

“I probably had too much tea and wine”, I replied as she bent to kiss me and then sat down on the edge of my bed. “How about you? Have you been sleeping?”

“Oh yeah; I’m a little achy though”.

“We worked hard today”.

“We did. We might be a little sleepy in church in the morning”.

“Well, St. Clement’s ought to keep us awake”.

“That’s where we’re going, is it?”

“Is that okay?”

“That’s fine, Dad”.

She sipped quietly at her water, her eyes down, and for a minute neither of us spoke. Eventually I covered her hand with mine; “What’s up?”

She looked at me and I saw the sadness in her eyes; “Our first house without Mom”, she said softly.

“Ah”. I held out my arms to her and she moved closer to me, leaning forward and laying her head on my shoulder. “Most of the time I’m okay”, she whispered, “but I still really miss her; I sometimes think it’ll never go away”.

“I know”.

“Of course you do; I’m sorry”.

“No – no need to apologize”.

We were quiet for a few minutes, holding each other in silence in the stillness of the room. Eventually she straightened up, put her hand on mine and said, “Would you like me to make you a cup of herbal tea?”

I shook my head. “I’m fine, love; I really don’t need to drink anything more tonight”.

“Are you all right?”

 “Oh yeah – don’t worry about me, I’ll just sit here and read for a while and eventually I’ll fall asleep”.

“Okay”. She kissed me again, got to her feet and said, “Goodnight, Dad”.

“Goodnight, sweetheart”.

She smiled at me again and then turned and slipped out of the room, pulling the door closed behind her.

******

Link to Chapter 8

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 6

Link back to Chapter 5

The following Tuesday we were finishing our breakfast in the kitchen when my father turned to me and said, “Now, we need to think about getting you a car”.

“It’s already looked after”, I replied as I topped up my tea cup from the pot.

“What do you mean?”

I glanced at my watch. “I mean that in about an hour Becca’s coming by to drive me into Oxford; we’re going to spend the day car shopping”.

“Isn’t she working today?”

“No; she’s taking an extra day off to spend with her brother”.

“And where are you going to look?”

I smiled at him; “Don’t you have a chemotherapy appointment to worry about today?”

“Yes of course, first thing this afternoon, but we could easily start looking at cars tomorrow morning. I could take you to a couple of the good dealers…”

I shook my head. “There’s no need for you to be concerned; Becs and I are already on it”.

“But what are you going to look for?”

“Something modest, maybe four or five years old, that will get me from A to B”.

He shook his head vigorously; “Compromising quality isn’t a good idea, and saving money on the purchase price will only cost you in the long run. You should buy new, or one year old at the most, and get one of the better models”.

I smiled at him again. “There’s no need for you to worry about it, Dad; Becs will be here in an hour, and hopefully by tonight I’ll have a car”.

 ******

Becca and I drove around a few dealers and by the middle of the afternoon I had found what I was looking for: a five year old Ford Escort with full service records and reasonably low mileage. My father had been driving expensive Jaguars for forty years and he was not amused when this modest-looking bright red intruder appeared outside his house. “I would have been quite willing to lend you the money to get a decent car”, he said to me while we were all sitting around the dinner table that night. “In fact I still am; it’s not too late to take it back”.

I shook my head. “I’m okay, thanks; I know it’s not fancy but it’ll get us from A to B”.

“But you need a vehicle that’s reliable!”

“I think this car will do fine. And anyway, I plan to live within easy reach of my school, and if worse comes to worse, Oxford has a good bus system”.

“You never know who you’re going to meet on the busses; you’re better to avoid them altogether. Why don’t you let me lend you some money to get a decent car?”

I looked at him in silence for a moment, and then I said, “Money’s not a problem; if I wanted to spend more money on a car I could. But I don’t want to, so I haven’t, and that’s all I’ve got to say about that”.

“I don’t understand how you can possibly have a lot of money to throw around. You haven’t sold your house in Saskatchewan, and presumably you’re going to need a good damage deposit on a rental house – not to mention Emma’s fees if she chooses to start university while you’re here”.

I shook my head; “You’re just going to have to trust me. I’m telling you the truth; I have money, and if I wanted to use it on a car I could. I just don’t want to buy more car than I need, that’s all”.

 ******

The next couple of weeks were busy for me. I was less than a month away from the beginning of the school year, and I was going to be using a curriculum that was new to me. I had received a lot of information about it before I left Canada, and when it came to the literature portion of the course I was familiar with most of the set books, but I still had a lot of ground to cover. My preparations were also hampered by the fact that my parents did not have internet access. I mentioned this to my father one day when he was on another of his rants about it being a waste of money for Emma and me to rent a place in town when we could easily live with them in Northwood.

“I can’t stay here, Dad”, I said; “You don’t have internet access”.

“Why would you need internet access?”

“It’s in my contract. The school has to be able to contact me by email, and a lot of the policy and procedure documents we use are only available online. That’s why I’ve been going in to Becca’s place for the last couple of days; I need internet access to be able to do my prep work”.

“That’s outrageous! How can they possibly require such a thing?”

“It’s the modern world. Trust me – it’s right in my contract”.

 ******

Becca had a two-bedroomed flat on the ground floor of a house on Peat Moors in Headington, and for those first few weeks Emma and I used it as a base for our errands in Oxford. We contacted an estate agent and began looking for a suitable place to rent, and within a week I had put a deposit down on a small three-bedroomed terraced house in New Marston, just north of Headington. We scouted out a walking route from the new house to my school just south of Headington Road, and we walked it together in about twenty-five minutes.

Becca saw the house the day after I put the deposit on it. “It’s a bit small”, she said dubiously.

I shook my head; “It’s got three bedrooms and a bathroom, a living room and a dining area and a kitchen, and a garden space out back. What more could we possibly need?”

“I don’t know; an office, maybe?”

“I can set up the spare bedroom as an office, and if we have a guest, I can move my stuff into the master bedroom; it’s got plenty of room”.

“Seriously, Tommy; I know you believe in simple living, but is this house really going to be big enough for you two?”

“We’ll be fine”, I replied. “What do you say, Em?”

Emma took my arm; “Absolutely fine!” she agreed with a smile.

“So when do you move in?” Becca asked.

“That’s the tricky part”, I replied; “The weekend before school starts!”

“Sounds like we’re going to be storing furniture at my flat ’til then”.

“Well, now that you mention it…!”

 ******

We had shipped a few items of furniture from Saskatchewan, along with many boxes of personal effects, including all the books, records and CDs from our shelves. We had timed their arrival for the end of August, in case it took us longer to find a place to live, but we also did some shopping in second hand furniture stores, and Owen and Becca both insisted we take some things from them as well, as did my mother. We arranged a land line and cable TV service for the house, and Emma and I both equipped ourselves with mobile phones. And of course there were many other formalities we had to attend to, some of which my brother assisted us with. “A lawyer in the family’s got to be good for something!” he said with a grin after he helped me fill out our National Health Service registration forms.

“I’ve never doubted it”, I replied.

 ******

Those first few weeks in Northwood were not always easy for Emma. My parents moved in a small circle of acquaintance; apart from immediate family members all their regular visitors were in their early seventies. My father’s old business partner Jack Marlowe came out from Oxford once a week, my mother’s sister Brenda came out for coffee regularly, and her old friend Philippa Carr came to visit a couple of times a month. Emma and I had an enjoyable visit with George and Eleanor Foster, Owen’s parents, but they also were in their seventies. We drove in to Headington one evening during our first week so that Emma could spend some time with Owen and Lorraine’s children, Andrew and Katie; they were quite a bit younger than her, but she had known them all their lives and was very fond of them.

Through the month of August Alyson brought her children out to Northwood once or twice a week, and Emma looked forward eagerly to those visits. Rick had described Eric to me as ‘difficult’, and as I got to know him a little better I began to understand why. He loved music, and he and Emma were getting on well because of that connection, but he was moody, and he could be sullen and obstinate when he was asked to do something he didn’t want to do. Sarah was even more shy than her brother, but she and Emma had been emailing each other almost every day for two months before our move and it was obvious that they enjoyed each other’s company, despite the two and a half year age gap between them. Anna was a lot younger but Emma was careful not to exclude her; from time to time I saw them talking together, and once or twice they went off for a walk in the village by themselves.

One thing Emma and I were both excited about was our discovery that the old canoe Becca and I had used was still stored under a tarpaulin in the corner of the garage. “I haven’t seen it for years”, Becca said to us, “but as far as I know it’s still there”.

The next time she came out to Northwood the three of us went to look for it together, and we quickly found it exactly where we expected. The canoe itself turned out to be in good shape, but the old paddles and life jackets were looking very much the worse for wear, so when I was in Oxford the next day I picked up some new ones, along with a carrying rack for the roof of my car. That evening Emma and I took the old canoe down to the river, put it into the water, paddled upstream toward Oxford for a while and then let the current carry us back to Northwood.

The next Saturday when Alyson and her kids were visiting us we went down to the river again and gave the children their first experience of canoeing. Alyson had been nervous about this, but eventually she had agreed to it, and as she and I stood on the river bank and watched Emma giving her children their first lessons I could see her gradually relaxing. “She’s quite good at this, isn’t she?”

“She’s been doing it for a while”.

“Did you teach her?”

“Kelly and me”.

After a moment I felt her taking my arm; “You’ve given her such a great life”, she said quietly.

I shrugged; “I mainly just got out of the way and let her do what she wanted to do”.

She laughed softly; “And she just happened to want to do all the things she saw her mum and dad doing?”

“Well I guess that’s natural, isn’t it?”

“Sometimes, but not always”.

“We were lucky, I guess”.

She smiled; “Somehow I don’t think luck had much to do with it”.

 ******

The following Saturday Emma and I met Becca and Sarah in Oxford. We had an enjoyable lunch at Becca’s flat, and then for a couple of hours we wandered around the centre of the city, looking at the old buildings and enjoying the sunshine, before stopping for a late afternoon cup of coffee at a café on the High.

I was the one who suggested a visit to Blackwell’s; Becca laughed and said, “Aren’t there enough books on your shelves yet?”

“Well, I haven’t been to Blackwell’s in six years!”

“What’s Blackwell’s?” asked Emma.

“Just a little bookshop on Broad Street”, Becca replied; “It’s rather famous”.

“And rather huge”, I added; “she’s being facetious when she calls it ‘a little bookshop’”.

“How huge?”

“Very huge”.

We finished our coffee and made our way up to Broad Street. It was a warm afternoon and the sidewalks were full of people: busy people walking purposefully with deadlines and destinations in mind, and others strolling along in a more leisurely fashion, talking to each other and enjoying the weather and the ambience of Broad Street. I led the way across the road toward an ordinary-looking four storey building with green shutters and two window displays on the ground floor; above the windows the word ‘Blackwell’ confirmed that this was our destination. Emma looked at me incredulously. “Are you sure we’re in the right place? This doesn’t look very big!”

“You’ll see”, I said as we went in at the front door.

The ground floor of the bookshop did indeed seem quite ordinary in size, but I led the way down the stairs and Emma gasped in surprise as we emerged into the underground expanse of the Norrington Room, with bookshelves seeming to stretch far away into the distance on several levels. “There’s no way this is all underneath that little store!” she exclaimed.

“No – it actually stretches under Trinity College. Have a look around if you like; there are also two floors above the ground floor”

“Where do you start?”

Sarah had been in Blackwell’s many times before and she was able to show Emma where to find the sort of books they were both interested in. Becca and I browsed together for a while; I looked through the history section and the novels and then left my sister leafing through a paperback, her sunglasses pushed up on top of her head. I had noticed the literary criticism section, and I was immediately interested.

That was when I made my surprise discovery. I was scanning the titles on the shelves, looking for nothing in particular, when a familiar name registered in my mind; I stopped, went back and looked again. I pulled the book out from the shelf; it was a blue Oxford University Press hardback with a Victorian village scene on the front cover. The title was ‘George Eliot: A New Critical Introduction’, and the author was Wendy Howard. I flipped to the back; there was her photograph on the dust cover. Her dark hair was cut a little shorter than I remembered, but it was definitely our old friend Wendy who had played music with Owen and me over twenty years ago in our university days.

I scanned the back of the book for the biographical information. ‘Wendy Howard, MA (Oxon), Ph.D. (University College, London), is Tutorial Fellow in English Literature at Merton College, Oxford. She has specialized in the Victorian novel and in particular the works of George Eliot’. I opened the book, flipped to the first few pages to find the publishing date and discovered that it was brand new.

I went back to the fiction section where Becca was still browsing the shelves; she looked up with a smile, saw the open book in my hand and said, “What did you find?”

“Take a look at this!”

I showed her the inside cover and she glanced at the photograph. “Do you remember this face?” I asked.

She shook her head; “Should I?”

“Think back to when you were about ten or eleven, and Owen and I were playing music at folk clubs and open stages”.

“Didn’t you…oh my God, is that the girl who used to sing with you?”

“Wendy Howard”.

“Where is she now?”

“Teaching English Lit. at Merton”.

“So she’s here in Oxford?”

“Apparently”.

“I wonder if Owen knew? I’ve never heard him talk about her”.

“I doubt it, or he’d have mentioned it to me. I lost touch with Wendy after I moved to Canada; I had one letter from her but then she stopped writing, and I never heard anything about her after that”.

“Did she stay in Oxford?”

I shook my head. “That’s the funny thing – she’d been all set to do a doctorate here, but a few weeks after I moved to Canada I heard she’d gone to London instead and moved in with her boyfriend”.

“Are you going to try to get in touch with her?”

I didn’t answer immediately, and Becca saw my hesitation. “Was there perhaps more to the relationship than just friendship?” she asked softly.

I shook my head. “Wendy and I weren’t romantically involved; we were just good friends. But there were a few awkward things that happened in our last year; we didn’t part on the best of terms”. I avoided my sister’s gaze, glancing down at the book in my hands; “I’d like to read this”, I said, reaching into my back pocket for my wallet.

At that moment Emma and Sarah came back; Emma saw the book in my hand and said, “Did you find something you liked?”

“I found something by an old friend, actually”.

“Who?”

“Do you remember me talking about ‘Lincoln Green’?”

“Of course”.

“‘Lincoln Green’, as in Robin Hood?” Sarah asked with a smile.

“‘Lincoln Green’ was a folk group Dad and Uncle Owen were in when they were university students”, Emma explained; “There was a girl in it, too…”

“Wendy Howard”, I said with a nod; “She’s the author of this book”.

“No way!” Emma exclaimed;  “What’s it about?”

“George Eliot”.

She stared at me. “Seriously, Dad?”

“Seriously”.

“Can I see?”

“Sure”. I handed the book to her and she turned to the table of contents, scanned it briefly and then leafed through the pages, stopping in a couple of places to read more slowly.

“You like that kind of thing?” Sarah asked.

Emma shook her head; “I’ve never read anything like this before, but I really like George Eliot”. She grinned at me; “Are you going to buy it?” she asked.

“So you can read it, you mean?”

“Naturally!”

“Yes, I’m going to buy it”.

She glanced at the inside cover for a moment, skimming through the biographical information as I had done; “So she’s teaching here in Oxford”.

“I saw that”.

“You should call her”.

“Maybe I will”, I replied noncommittally.

Emma looked at me for a moment, and then glanced quizzically at Becca. My sister shrugged; “He’s being inscrutable”, she said with a grin.

“Dad? Surely not!”

We laughed, and I grinned at Becca and said, “Okay, I’m going to pay for this book now!”

 ******

That night in my room I started to read Wendy’s book, and I was impressed almost immediately. Obviously writing for a student audience, she began with an overview of George Eliot’s life and an introduction to the social milieu in which she lived, before going on to examine her various novels and other works and concluding by drawing out some common themes. It was fine, accessible scholarship, and as I turned the pages I found myself smiling at the memory of the young woman I had known all those years ago when we were both in our early twenties. We had often talked about books during the last few months before I left for Canada, and I had always known she was intelligent and articulate, but somehow I had never imagined her writing anything like this.

I read until about one in the morning, then put the book down, turned out the light, and lay awake for a while, thinking about Wendy. I had first met her in October 1980 at the ‘Plough and Lantern’ pub in Jericho; in the three years we had been at Oxford Owen and I had become regulars there. Bill Prentiss, the big, bearded landlord, was a lover of folk music, and for many years he had been running a Friday night open stage. Unusually, he himself acted as host and master of ceremonies; aspiring acts gave him their names on arrival and he slotted them into the program as he saw fit.

When we arrived that night at around seven the place was already filling up; cigarette smoke was beginning to hang below the low beamed ceiling and the conversation was buzzing at the bar and the tables. The clientele was mainly students, with a smattering of older people who came because of the pub’s reputation for good folk music. I went over to the bar and bought drinks for the two of us while Owen gave our names to Bill. When he returned we found ourselves a little table in the back by the fireplace, took our seats and sipped at our pints.

“So when are we playing?” I asked.

“Apparently there are already a few acts here; he thinks we’ll be on around nine”.

By seven-thirty, when the performances started, a couple of our other musical friends had joined us at our corner table. Bill climbed the steps to the little stage, gave a few words of welcome and then introduced the first act, a guitar and voice duo well-known at the ‘Plough’. When they finished Bill stepped up onto the stage, thanked them, and glanced at his list. Standing behind the microphone he smiled and said, “Now we’ve got a pair of newcomers to our open stage; please give a warm welcome to Wendy Howard and Mickey Kingsley”.

We watched as Wendy and Mickey took their places on high stools and began to adjust their microphones. Wendy had dark eyes and very long black hair hanging loose down her back; she was dressed simply in faded jeans and a sweater. Mickey had blond hair hanging to his shoulders, with a thin face and a crooked nose, and I recognized his guitar as an old Gibson J-45, probably from the 1950s; that instrument, I knew, was worth serious money.

They glanced at each other, she nodded at him and he bent over his guitar and began to play. I recognized immediately that he was picking out an arrangement of the old folk song ‘Plains of Waterloo’ and doing it extremely well. After he had played one instrumental verse she closed her eyes, put her head back a little and began to sing. Her voice was clear and natural and full of expression, and I found myself leaning forward, drawn irresistibly by the beauty of her singing. The tune was traditional but the arrangement was unusual, a rhythmic, bass-driven interpretation that added a hard edge to the song. I glanced across the table and saw by the expression on Owen’s face that he was as smitten as I was.

When they were finished the audience applauded warmly; Wendy gave a shy smile and Mickey nodded his acknowledgement. They quickly moved into a high-tempo arrangement of ‘Johnny Cope’, with Mickey singing a tenor harmony behind Wendy’s lead vocals, and then, barely pausing to acknowledge the applause, they began a slow, soulful arrangement of ‘The Snow it Melts the Soonest’, with Wendy’s singing style reminding me strongly of Anne Briggs.

As they were leaving the stage Owen leaned over to me; “I’d like to meet them”, he said.

“Me too”.

“Well – there’s no time like the present!”

I opened my mouth to protest but he was already on his feet and threading his way between the crowded tables, his glass in his hand; I had been his friend for long enough to know he didn’t have a shy bone in his body. By the time Mickey and Wendy reached their table he was already there; I saw him shaking their hands and talking with them, and then he looked back at me and signalled for me to come and join them. I shrugged, got to my feet and made my way over to them. “This is my friend Tom Masefield”, said Owen.

I shook hands with them both; “Nicely done”, I said. “You’ve got an amazing voice, Wendy”.

She gave me a shy smile; “Thank you very much”.

“I’ll go and get some drinks”, Mickey said to her; “I’ll be back in a minute. How about you two; do you want another round?”

Owen lifted his half-empty glass; “I’m alright, thanks”.

“Me too”, I agreed.

He went over to the bar and Wendy invited us to sit down. “Are you new in Oxford?” she asked.

Owen shook his head; “We’ve been here for three years. How about you?”

“We just got here a couple of weeks ago. We’re from North Essex, but we’ve been in London for the past three years”.

“At university?”

“Well – I was, anyway”. She smiled awkwardly; “Mickey took some courses in photography and graphic design but he wasn’t really working on any particular degree”.

“What about you?” I asked.

“I did an English degree at University College London, and now I’m doing a masters at Merton”.

“In English Lit?”

“Yes; I’m hoping to teach it eventually”.

“At university level?”

“That’s my goal, but of course I know it’s going to take a lot of hard work and some good luck to get there. How about you two?”

“I’m a medical student”, Owen replied, “and Tom’s doing teacher training”.

“My first degree was in English, too”, I added.

“So you’re going to be an English teacher?”

“Hopefully”.

She grinned at me; “You like reading, then?”

“I do”.

“Any favourite authors?”

I smiled; “It’s a long list! Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, the Brontës, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. I like poetry too – Hardy, Shakespeare, Robert Frost, and especially John Clare”.

“That’s a very eclectic list”.

“What about you – who are your favourites?”

“I like Hardy and the Brontës, but George Eliot’s my absolute favourite”.

“I’m a bit surprised you’re not taking a music degree”, said Owen; “You sounded really good tonight, and so did Mickey”.

“Thanks”. She grinned; “He doesn’t actually care for folk music”.

“Really?”

“Yeah – he’s in a new wave band, but he indulges me from time to time”.

“If he doesn’t like what he’s playing, he hides it well”.

“Do you fellows play?”

I nodded; “We do traditional songs too”.

“Oh right – that’s excellent! Are you going to play tonight?”

“Yes we are”.

At that moment Mickey returned from the bar, handed a glass of cider to Wendy and took his seat with us at the table. He took a long draught of his Guinness, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, smiled at Owen and me and asked, “So are you musicians too?”

“We are”, I replied; “You’ll get to hear us around nine”.

“What sort of music do you play?”

“Traditional folk songs”.

He grinned at Wendy; “I’m surrounded!” he said.

“I told them you weren’t exactly the world’s most enthusiastic folk musician”.

“How long have you two been playing together?” Owen asked her.

“We started in our last year in high school. We played at open stages when we were in London, and we did a couple of little concerts too – pubs and cafés and that sort of thing. How about you?”

“We started out in high school as well; we were playing cheap guitars and trying really hard to sound like Simon and Garfunkel!”

“Owen’s a bit braver than I am”, I said; “I probably wouldn’t have had the nerve to get up on stage if it wasn’t for him”.

“When did you start playing traditional songs?”

“In the sixth form I think”.

Owen nodded; “By the time we came up to Oxford that was pretty much all we were playing”.

“So what are you going to play tonight?”

He grinned at her; “Now that would be telling!”

 ******

By the time we took the stage just after nine the pub was full, and we could see many familiar faces looking up at us from the tables. Sitting on my stool, I made a final adjustment to my guitar microphone while Owen smiled at the audience and said, “Let’s start with a tune most of you will know; this is ‘Seven Yellow Gypsies’”.

And so our set began. After our opening song we slipped into a lively Irish piece, ‘The Jolly Beggar Man’, which we knew the people there would enjoy, and then moved seamlessly into our own arrangement of ‘Scarborough Fair’, using a different tune to the one Simon and Garfunkel had made famous. We could tell by the applause that the audience was with us, and I could see Bill on the front row nodding and holding up one finger.

“He wants us to do one more”, I said to Owen.

“Let’s get Wendy up here”, he suggested with a mischievous grin.

“You’re joking, right?”

He shook his head; “We could do ‘I Wonder What is Keeping My True Love This Night’”.

“Do you think she knows it?”

He smiled and turned back to his microphone; “Wendy Howard was great earlier on, wasn’t she?” he said.

The people applauded enthusiastically; Wendy and Mickey were still sitting at the same table in the far corner of the room, and as I glanced over there I saw the sudden surprise registering on Wendy’s face. Owen smiled across at her; “Wendy, how about coming up here and doing one more piece with Tom and me?”

There was more applause, and as I watched she grinned helplessly, shrugged at Mickey and got to her feet. She threaded her way between the crowded tables and stepped up between us on the little stage. “Are you sure this is a good idea”, she said with a smile, “given the fact that we haven’t actually had a practice?”

“All the more fun!” Owen replied mischievously. “Do you know ‘I Wonder What is Keeping My True Love This Night?’”

“It’s actually one of my favourites”.

Owen winked at me; “Lucky guess. Let’s see if we know the same version. Here, Wendy – use my voice mike”.

We began the song with a slow instrumental introduction. Wendy seemed to know instinctively when to come in; once again she closed her eyes, put her head back a little and began to sing in the clear, natural voice that had so quickly won over the audience earlier in the evening. Before she had finished the first two lines she had taken command of the stage; she slowed the song down a little, used subtle dramatic pauses and even glanced over and nodded to me when she wanted me to sing harmonies.

When we were finished the people clapped and whistled their approval; Owen put his hand on Wendy’s arm, grinned at the audience and said, “Wendy Howard!” She was smiling with delight, and Bill was pointing at the three of us and mouthing words at me again. “I think he wants us to do another one”, I said.

“Do you boys know ‘Reynardine?’” asked Wendy.

“We do; you probably learned it from Anne Briggs, right?”

“How did you know?”

“I recognized her style when you sang ‘The Snow it Melts the Soonest’”.

I played a short guitar introduction; once again she seemed to know instinctively when to come in, even though I quickly realized she was used to singing the song unaccompanied, as Anne Briggs had done. Once again she immediately took ownership of the piece, varying the pace and adding her own unique phrasing to some of the verses.

When the song ended the three of us stood and acknowledged the applause before stepping off the stage. Bill got to his feet to introduce the next act; he smiled broadly at us and said, “That was great! Are you three going to do it again soon?”

I shrugged, and Wendy glanced over at Mickey; “I don’t know”, she said.

“We’ll do it again”, Owen replied confidently.

People were still applauding as Wendy led us back to the table where Mickey was sitting, and several of our friends stopped us on the way to tell us how much they had enjoyed the music. As we approached the table, Mickey got to his feet and put his hands on Wendy’s arms. “You were outstanding!” he said.

She kissed him on the lips; “Are you going to buy these thirsty musicians another drink?”

“Absolutely!” he agreed, smiling at Owen and me; “What were you drinking? Bitter?”

“Thanks”, Owen replied; “I’ll come and help you carry”.

 ******

That night was the beginning of our friendship with Mickey and Wendy – or at least, with Wendy; we saw a lot of Mickey, but he never really became our friend in the same way she did.

Most Friday nights and some Saturdays Owen and I played music somewhere in Oxford, and over the next month or so Wendy sang with us on two more occasions. At that point we decided we needed a proper rehearsal, so Mickey invited us to his flat near the Polytechnic,  and we spent an evening going over songs we had in common. That night Owen, in his usual direct way, asked Mickey how he felt about his girlfriend singing with us. Mickey replied that he was quite happy for her to perform with a couple of real folk musicians and leave him to play the harder-edged new wave sounds he was creating with his own band. That having been settled, Wendy became a regular member of our group, which we had already taken to calling ‘Lincoln Green’.

Owen and I often wondered about Wendy and Mickey; they were an unusual couple and yet they gave the impression of having been together for a long time. Mickey was taking courses at Oxford Polytechnic; he was an enthusiastic photographer and was hoping for a career in photojournalism. He usually came to listen to the three of us when we were playing at folk clubs or pubs, unless his own band had a gig that night as well. During the evenings the four of us would chat amiably, but Owen and I always knew that we were the newcomers in the relationship; at the end of the evening Wendy and Mickey would slip away, their arms around each other’s shoulders. She had her own room at Manor Place, the Merton College postgraduate residence, but she seemed to spend a lot of time at his flat.

As we got to know them better we discovered that Mickey had a dark side. He had a weakness for large quantities of Guinness, and when he had been drinking he could be belligerent and abusive. We suspected that he did hard drugs as well, but we never asked Wendy about this.

One of the things that confused me about them was that they seemed to have so little in common. Their taste in music was not the only difference between them. Wendy loved reading and was hoping to make a career out of her passion for English literature, but Mickey freely admitted that he rarely opened a book, and when he did it was more likely to be a thriller or a true crime story. Wendy enjoyed long distance walking, while Mickey had a motorcycle and spent many Saturday afternoons going to scrambles. She was the daughter of a Church of England minister and her education was being financed mainly by hard-won scholarships, but his parents were a wealthy country family whose holiday destinations had included the Riviera and the Caribbean.

When she found out that Owen and I enjoyed walking in the country she asked if she could join us for a Saturday walk. Surprised at her desire to spend a day with us rather than Mickey, I asked if he would mind. She laughed at me; “Mickey’s my lover, not my friend!”

I was astonished. “Don’t they usually go together?”

“Of course not!”

I frowned at her; “I’ve always understood that they did”.

“Have you ever been in love, Tom Masefield?”

I shrugged; “I’ve gone out with girls but I don’t know if I’ve ever really loved anyone”.

“I rest my case”.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you’re arguing from hearsay, not your own experience. One day you’ll learn that love and friendship are two completely different things”.

I dropped the subject, but I found my thoughts returning to it frequently over the next few weeks. I knew she was right about my lack of personal experience; as I had said to her, I had dated girls occasionally, and I was as interested in sex as any man my age, but I had never had a long-term relationship with a woman. From time to time I admitted privately to myself that I would have liked to have experienced a relationship like that with Wendy; she was attractive, enjoyable to be around, and shared many of my interests. In the nearly two years that I knew her we became good friends, but through most of that time it was clear she was firmly attached to Mickey – at least until our last few months in Oxford, when their relationship ran into serious trouble because of his dark side.

******

Link to Chapter 7

‘A Time to Mend’ – Chapter 5

Link back to Chapter 4

When I finished ‘Meadowvale’ it turned out that there were some inconsistencies with ‘A Time to Mend’ (which I wrote first, over ten years ago, even though chronologically it comes after ‘Meadowvale’). So – I’m having another go at ‘A Time to Mend’ to bring it back in sync with ‘Meadowvale’. Here’s the fourth chapter.

On our past visits to England we had always attended church on Sundays, either at the village church in Northwood or in Headington with Owen and Lorraine. My father had been an atheist for as long as I could remember and he found our continued church attendance puzzling, although he rarely said anything about it unless he happened to catch me by myself. Emma and I had agreed that we would continue our usual practice on the Sunday after our arrival; we would go down to the village church for the morning service, even though it would be very different from the style of worship at our Mennonite church back home. “When we get settled we can look around for something a little closer to what we’re used to”, I said, “but for now, the village church is fine with me, if you’re okay with it?”

“I’m good”, she replied with a smile; “I remember it from the last time we were here. It was kind of like a Catholic service, wasn’t it? I remember the pastor and the choir members wore robes”.

“That’s right”.

“Do you think we’ll see Uncle Owen’s mom and dad there?”

“No, they’re staying with Owen’s brother and his family up in Lancashire right now; Owen says they’ll be back in a week or so”.

“What time is the service?”

“The church sign says nine”.

“That’s kind of early”.

“Yeah; I seem to remember the vicar has two or three different churches to look after so they’re probably all competing for prime time”.

“Right”.

******

We mentioned to my parents on Saturday night that we would be going to church the next morning. Becca had gone back to Oxford late in the afternoon, so it was just the four of us sitting around one end of the long table in the dining room. My mother smiled as she and I were setting the table together; “We should probably just go back to eating our evening meals in the kitchen”, she said. “That’s what your dad and I usually do, but I wanted to keep it special for you and Emma for a day or two yet”.

“And we appreciate that”.

After we had finished our supper and were sipping our tea, I glanced at Emma and then turned to my mother; “We’re going to get up and go to church tomorrow morning”, I said. “The service is at nine, so if you don’t want to get up that early on a Sunday we’ll be happy to look after ourselves for breakfast”.

“I don’t mind getting up and making something for you; I’ll be awake anyway”.

My father looked at me for a moment and then shook his head reproachfully; “Still participating in that foolishness, then?”

“It’s not foolishness to me; it’s one of the ways I make sense of my life”.

He glanced at his granddaughter, looked back at me for a moment and then shrugged his shoulders. “Suit yourself; Sunday dinner’s at one”.

Emma gave a cheerful laugh. “I don’t think the service will last quite that long, Grandpa!”

******

The sky the next morning was a clear blue and the day was already pleasantly warm as we made our way down to the church. We walked in silence for a few minutes, and then Emma took my arm and said, “I’ve never really talked to Grandpa about Christianity”.

“That’s a conversation he’s not very interested in”.

“He’s an atheist, isn’t he?”

“Yes – and also a very good debater”.

“So there’s not much point in arguing with him then?”

“Not unless you want to learn how his opponents feel in court”.

“I guess it would have been hard to be a practising Christian when you were growing up”.

“Well, I wasn’t a practising Christian at the time, but yeah, I’m sure he would have taken every opportunity to make an issue out of it”.

“I noticed he wasn’t very respectful last night”.

“That was mild for him. If you hadn’t been there he’d have been a lot more aggressive.”

“Really?”

“Perhaps I’m being unfair; maybe he’s not feeling quite so belligerent now he’s dying of cancer”.

“Did you ever go to church when you were growing up?”

“I’m told I went when Rick was christened as a baby but I don’t remember that; I do remember Becca’s christening. Apart from that we only went on Christmas Eve and I stopped going when I was about thirteen; my dad didn’t care and my mum didn’t force the issue”.

“Grandma came from a churchgoing family, didn’t she?”

“She did – her dad was a church organist and he and his wife were both very devout. And do you remember my Uncle Roy?”

“Of course; he was one of Grandma’s relatives, wasn’t he?”

“Yes – he was married to my Auntie Brenda. He died about six years ago, not long after the last time we were here”.

“I remember that; he had a heart attack”.

“Yes. He and Auntie Brenda always went to church; I think she still does”.

“It must be hard for Grandma not to be able to go”.

“I’m not sure my dad would actually try to stop her, although he’s never been backward about trying to control other people’s lives. To be honest with you, I’m a little shy about asking her about it”.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. We’ve talked about lots of things through the years, but faith isn’t one of them”.

“How come? You and Grandma are pretty close”.

“My family tends to be more reserved about some things, I guess”.

“But you and I talk about almost everything”.

“But if I knew there was something you didn’t want to talk about, I wouldn’t push you; I’d let you decide when you were ready”.

“Right – I guess that’s true”. She smiled at me and laid her head momentarily on my shoulder; “That’s because you’re such a great dad!”

“Thank you; you’re pretty special yourself, too”.

******

In the centre of the village there was a small grass-covered square with a cross-shaped war memorial; the old stone church stood on the west side of the square, and the primary school on the east. The church was a solid-looking building with a tower at one end, set in a churchyard dotted with old gravestones, with a stand of trees behind. There were a few cars parked on the road in front, and a couple of people were going into the church through a porch on the north side of the building.

Inside, the air was pleasantly cool. The walls were plastered white, with stained glass windows higher up, and at the front the altar and choir stalls stood behind a wooden rood screen with the morning sun pouring in through another colourful window. There were already some people in the pews, including a couple of families with small children. An elderly lady with a big smile greeted us and handed us our books and bulletins and we took our seats near the back, just across from the porch where we had come in. Emma was looking up at the carved wooden ceiling. “I remember this now”, she whispered; “It’s fifteenth century, right?”

“Yes”.

“I remember the pastor showed me around last time we were here. Was that after a service or something?”

“No – we wandered in here on the first day of our holiday, when we were out for a walk. It was just you and me, remember? Your mum couldn’t get the whole five weeks off work, so she came a couple of weeks later”.

“Right”.

“We’d been sitting down for a long time and we wanted to take a walk so we came out for an hour or so. The minister just happened to be here when we stopped in to have a look; I think he said he was tidying up after a funeral”.

“I wonder if he’s still here?”

I glanced down at the bulletin I had been given. “Not unless he’s changed not only his name but also his gender”.

She looked at her own bulletin and then laughed softly; “The Reverend Claire Lucas”, she said. “Right – definitely not the same person!”

A few minutes later the service began. The choir entered from the back during the singing of the first hymn, followed by the minister; she appeared to be in her mid-forties, with greying blond hair cut just above her shoulders, dressed in the customary robes worn by Church of England clergy. The singing seemed a little timid compared to our Mennonite church back home, but the congregation participated well in the various prayers and responses throughout the service. Some of the rituals were strange to us but the minister did well in giving directions as to what was expected of us, and I speculated that she had probably noticed the presence of newcomers in church that day. She preached a fine, practical sermon with plenty of food for thought, and I quickly found myself warming to her.

At the end of the service, during the announcement time, the minister gave an invitation for everyone to stay afterwards for a cup of coffee. However, when the time came Emma glanced at me hesitantly and said, “Do you mind if we don’t stay?”

“Of course not”. I looked at her curiously; “Are you okay?”

“Just missing home”, she said quietly.

“I understand”.

******

The sun was riding high in the sky as we left the church, and people were already out enjoying it; couples were walking with their children and the road was busy with cars and bicycles. I smiled at Emma; “Shall we walk down to the river before we go back to Grandma and Grandpa’s?”

“Sure; lead the way”.

So we strolled south on the main street and then took the old wharf road down to the river. There were several boats moving on the water, and I pointed out to her the little wooden jetty that Owen’s family had used for their canoeing during our teenage years. Emma and I both enjoyed canoeing, and we agreed together that we would beg or borrow the use of a canoe as soon as possible. “I won’t be surprised if Becca has one stored somewhere”, I said; “I don’t know for sure, though”.

We wandered along the footpath beside the river, heading east toward the Kingfisher Inn and the bridge over the Thames. After a few minutes I spoke hesitantly; “Are you missing our own church?”

She nodded. “It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with this one; it just made me think of home and all the people going to our church today”.

“Right”.

“It reminded me of Mom, too; she was with us last time we came to church here”.

“That’s right – she was”.

“I liked the service okay though”.

“So did I”.

“The minister preached a good sermon, didn’t she?”

“Yes she did”.

“Of course, I’m not used to all the written prayers and ceremonies – that always feels a little strange to me”.

“I know what you mean”.

“I like the sense of history here, though. And the building’s not too fancy, is it? I don’t think I’d feel good about going to a really fancy church, like some of those cathedrals we saw in London last time we were here. I’m not quite sure how they make that fit with what Jesus says about not storing up for yourself treasures on earth”.

“I know what you mean”.

“It must be hard for the minister to have three churches to look after; she must do a lot of driving”.

“The communities are closer together here, though. That’s one of the first things I noticed when I moved to Saskatchewan: how spread out the towns are. Here it’s an easy four mile walk from Northwood to Wallingford. Owen and I even used to walk home from Oxford sometimes when we were up at university”.

“How far is that?”

“About ten miles if you go direct, but we used to like to make a day of it and take the Thames path; that’s about seventeen miles”.

“That’s a long walk”.

“Not as far as Saskatoon to Meadowvale, though”.

She laughed softly; “I guess not”.

******

That afternoon Emma and my mother were both busy in other parts of the house, and I found myself alone with my father. He looked tired and pale after Sunday dinner and the afternoon was warm and muggy, but to my surprise instead of lying down for a nap he suggested we take a walk around the garden. He was wearing a white shirt and a pair of old grey trousers, and I had changed after church into shorts, tee shirt and sandals.

Gardening was my father’s only real relaxation, but since his illness he had been too tired to look after the grounds and he had reluctantly agreed to my mother’s suggestion to have a professional gardener come in once a week. I strolled along beside him for a while, listening as he pointed out the various plants in their beds and told me how they had been grown. Afterwards we went back to his greenhouse and sat down together on a wooden bench outside the door. He took off his glasses, wiped them with his handkerchief, and dabbed at his sweating brow. “The heat’s a bit too much for me”, he said.

“How have you been feeling?”

“Oh fine, fine. A bit tired of course, but that’s only to be expected”.

“You’re having another chemo treatment this week?”

“Supposed to be”, he replied, putting his glasses back on. “I’ll be seeing the doctor on Tuesday to make sure I’m ready for it”.

“The white blood cells don’t always build back up the way they should?”

He gave me a sideways glance. “Kelly had chemotherapy too, didn’t she?”

“Yes. It wasn’t enough of course, but I’m sure it gave us a little longer before she died”.

“Well I’m not going to let this thing get the better of me; I’m sure I’ll be fine once the treatments are over”.

“What’s your oncologist saying?”

He looked up at me sharply; “What have you heard from your sister?”

“Actually it was Mum, way back in January; she told me they’d said two years. A few weeks ago Becca told me they were still saying the same thing”.

“Then why are you asking me?”

“Because I’d like us to be able to talk openly and honestly about these things”.

“Are you accusing me of dishonesty? This from the man who told us he had a teaching job in Reading and then went off to Canada instead?”

I shook my head. “I’m not accusing you of anything, Dad. It’s just that I’d like to think we could talk about these things between ourselves rather than having to use other people as go-betweens”.

He looked at me suspiciously. “This is a new line for you. Why this sudden desire to talk to me? You’ve never been especially interested before”.

“I would think that would be kind of obvious”.

“Perhaps – although I can’t help being a bit suspicious that it’s got something to do with my money”.

“I don’t care about your money, Dad; I have all the money I need”.

He laughed; “I find that rather hard to believe!”

I didn’t reply, hoping my silence would ease the sudden confrontational tone the conversation had taken. But he had another issue he wanted to raise with me, and after a moment he said, “You know, I’m surprised that an educated man like you still carries on with churchgoing. I know Kelly and her family introduced you to religion but I’d hoped by now you’d have been able to see through all that”.

I smiled; “It didn’t start with Kelly and her family”.

“The Fosters, then?”

“They didn’t push it. I was questioning myself, long before I said anything to Owen”.

“Questioning what?”

I hesitated. “Dad, do we have to do this today? I can’t see that argument between us is going to do any good; can we just accept that I see things differently? Like I said last night, my faith is one of the ways I make sense of my life”.

“So you actually believe all that stuff about God and Christ and miracles, and Noah’s ark and the snake in the garden and all that?”

“I believe in God and Christ and miracles; I’m not especially tied to Noah’s ark or the snake in the garden”.

“So you pick and choose what you believe and what you don’t? A little inconsistent, aren’t you?”

“I take the Bible seriously as literature, which means I don’t treat all its various genres the same way”.

“How very convenient for you!”

I frowned; “I’m not quite sure why you feel the need to have this conversation”.

“What’s the matter – are you afraid I’ll talk you out of your faith?”

“No – I’m not afraid of that at all”.

“Then why don’t you want to talk about it?”

“Because I don’t have your faith in the power of a good argument. A friend of mine used to say that when an argument starts it’s no longer two people seeking the truth; it’s two egos trying to win. And we both know you have a lot of experience at winning”.

“That’s ridiculous!”

I shook my head. “I don’t think so. When I came to faith I certainly didn’t leave my brains behind, but no one argued me into it. When it came right down to it, it was an experience of God that got me over the last hurdle”.

“That’s pure wish-fulfilment; we both know you’ve adopted religion as a crutch for your weakness”.

“Sometimes when you’ve got a broken leg a crutch can be a good thing”.

“So you admit you’ve only adopted religion out of weakness?”

“Would it make you feel better if I did admit it?”

“Of course not; I’ve always known you preferred to follow sentiment over reason but I don’t have to like the fact. You’ve allowed sentiment to twist your logic, just like you did when you decided to become a teacher because of your sentimental attachment to George Foster. Sentiment’s all very well but you need reason and common sense if you’re going to be able to deal with the real world and not spend your time living in some make-believe fantasy”.

I smiled at him; “Make-believe fantasy?” I said softly.

“Yes. I’m sure it’s a comfort of sorts to think there’s a god looking after you and you’re going to go to heaven when you die, but intelligent people deal with reality as it is, not as they wish it was”.

“So I’m the one who’s deluding myself here?”

“Of course you are, and I understand completely why you continue to do so”.

“You do?”

“Yes; to abandon your faith would feel like disloyalty to Kelly”.

“Or maybe it would feel like disloyalty to the God I met after Kelly and I got engaged”.

“Don’t be ridiculous; no one can meet God, for the simple reason that God doesn’t exist. People can persuade themselves to believe they’ve had all kinds of supernatural experiences, but modern, rational human beings know it’s all self-delusion”.

“So the spiritual experiences of millions of human beings around the world and throughout history are ruled out of court, just like that?”

“It’s not verifiable evidence”.

“Neither is the fact that you love Mum”.

“What an absurd comparison!”

“I don’t think so”, I replied softly.

We looked at each other in silence for a moment, and then he said, “You know how to hit below the belt, don’t you?”

“Bringing in Kelly wasn’t hitting below the belt?”

He looked away, shaking his head. “I’m probably wasting my breath trying to talk some sense into you”, he said dismissively.

“I don’t mind changing the subject”, I replied. “I don’t especially feel the need to set you straight about your atheism, and I don’t understand why you feel you have to set me straight about my faith in God”.

He got to his feet. “I’m tired”, he said; “I’m going to go and lie down for a while”.

“Fair enough; I think I’ll go inside and find out what Emma’s doing”.

******

My body had still not adjusted to the time change, and later in the afternoon I went up to my room to have a nap of my own. When I woke up after an hour’s sleep I could hear the sound of guitar music somewhere in the house. There was a small sink by the window in my bedroom; I went over to it, splashed some water on my face, combed my hair, and slipped quietly downstairs.

The music was coming from the living room. I put my head around the door and saw Emma and Eric sitting on easy chairs across the empty fireplace from each other, playing their guitars, with Sarah and Anna sitting with them, listening to the music. Eric was playing and singing an old delta blues song, his accent imitating the old black blues performers like Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt; Emma was filling in some tasteful lead guitar licks as well as singing along with him on the chorus. I stood at the door listening until they were finished, then applauded quietly as I slipped into the room and sat down opposite them.

Emma smiled at me; “How long have you been standing there?”

“Just since the beginning of the song. How long have you been playing, Eric?”

“A couple of years. I’m not very good yet; Emma’s a lot better than me”.

“Sounds pretty good to me; you’ve got that delta blues style pretty well nailed”.

“Thanks!”

“Dad’s a really good player”, said Emma; “Do you want to play with us, Dad?”

“Not right now; I’m happy to listen. Are your mum and dad here, kids?”

“Mum’s here”, Sarah replied; “She’s out on the patio having lemonade with Grandma and Grandpa. Dad’s working”.

I glanced at Emma. “Are you guys going to play something else? I’m not really awake yet, so I’ll just sit here and listen to the music while I wake up”.

Emma laughed; “Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Aren’t we supposed to play you to sleep?”

“What do you like to play?” Eric asked her.

“I like a lot of bluegrass tunes, and I like Dad’s old folk songs, too”.

“You mean like Bob Dylan and those guys from the sixties?”

She laughed; “Actually, Dad’s songs are a lot older than that. No one knows who wrote them – they were handed down from long ago, and most of them have been changed and adapted over the years. They’re kind of like old blues tunes in that way”.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like that”.

“Yeah, you have; you just don’t know what they are. Do you know that old Simon and Garfunkel song ‘Scarborough Fair’?”

“I think so”.

“It was an old folk song they arranged”.

“Do you know it?”

“Yeah; would you like to play along with me?”

“What’s the key?”

“I play it in E minor, but Dad plays it a little lower”.

She showed him the chords, and then sang the song for him; he watched, and by the third verse he was playing along with her, as well as singing along with the ‘then she’ll be a true love of mine’ lines. When the song was over he smiled; “I think I’ve heard that one before but I barely remember it”. He gestured toward her guitar; “That guitar sounds so awesome!”

“Yeah – I’m really lucky to have it. It’s got a solid spruce top and mahogany back and sides; like Dad said the other night, it was built in 1970, so it’s thirty-three years old now”.

“Wow”. He glanced at me; “I can’t believe you gave away a beautiful guitar like that. What are you playing now?”

“A Larrivée; it’s the same kind of style but the construction’s a little different, so it’s got a slightly different voice. Emma and her mum and a whole bunch of other people got together to buy it for me for my fortieth birthday”.

“Mine’s just a cheap guitar; perhaps one day…”

“Sure – but don’t forget that Robert Johnson recorded all his songs on a much cheaper guitar than that!”

He nodded; “True!” he said with a smile.

******

I sat with them for about half an hour, listening to their music and joining in their conversation between songs. Eventually I got to my feet; “Sounding good, guys. Keep it up; I’m going to go find the others”.

I slipped out of the living room and crossed the hallway toward the back of the house. There was a large room there with a bare wooden floor, which at one time had been used for formal dances; it was almost empty now, with only my mother’s upright piano sitting in one corner, and a couple of armchairs scattered around the room. At the back, French windows opened onto an enclosed garden surrounded by a brick wall; beyond the wall was the orchard. My parents were sitting out there on the stone patio with Alyson, a jug of lemonade and some glasses on the table in front of them. Alyson was dressed for the heat of the afternoon in a loose sleeveless dress and a white sun hat. She was the first to see me, and she gave me a warm smile as I slipped out onto the patio and dropped into a lawn chair across from her. “Still getting over your jet lag, Tom?” she asked.

“Apparently. I hear my brother’s at work?”

“Yes; he had to go in for a while this afternoon”.

“Did you pass the musicians on your way out?” my mother asked.

“I did”.

“Emma plays very well”, said Alyson; “Did you teach her?”

“Some; her old babysitter Beth Robinson helped her a lot too”.

“What sort of music does she like to play?”

“She likes my old folk songs, but she and Jake play bluegrass and country music too; her tastes are actually quite eclectic”.

“Does she ever perform in front of people?”

“She’s done that once in a while with Jake when we’ve had family reunions, but most of the time she just plays for her own enjoyment”.

My father had been listening quietly; he was wearing a Panama hat to shade his head from the bright sunlight, and I noticed again how pale and tired he looked. “What are her plans?” he asked.

“She’s planning to look for work once the summer’s over. If she can’t find paying employment, she’ll try to find a volunteer position in a seniors’ home; she’s done that sort of thing before”.

“Are you going to look for a house?” asked Alyson.

“Yes. I’d prefer to be in walking distance of the school, although I know that might not be possible”.

My father shook his head; “Headington’s expensive; you won’t find much in your price range”.

“Are you going to buy or rent?” asked Alyson.

“Rent. We haven’t sold our house back in Meadowvale, and I really don’t want to get tied up in another mortgage”.

“Buying is always a better idea”, said my father. “When you rent, you’re just pouring money down the drain with nothing to show for it at the end of the day”.

My mother gave me a sympathetic glance; “Are you and Emma going to get any sightseeing in before the school year starts?”

“We’ve been talking about it. We’ll go into Oxford, of course, and maybe London, and she’d like to go down and see Stonehenge again; we did that trip last time we were here and she really enjoyed it”. I leaned forward and poured myself a glass of lemonade. “What about you?” I asked Alyson; “Are your kids doing anything for the summer?”

“No definite plans; we’ll probably do some day trips. Eric’s just started working at a garden centre since school ended; it’s the first time he’s had a summer job. And Rick’s having trouble getting out of the office at the moment. Not that that’s an unusual situation, of course – there are very few times when he doesn’t have trouble getting out of the office”.

“Occupational hazard for a barrister”, said my father.

“It makes family holidays a bit difficult, though”, Alyson replied. “I get a month off in the summer but we rarely manage to get away for more than a week together. What about you and Emma, Tom? Do you often take family holidays together?”

“Ah well, I’m a teacher, you know, so I’m used to long lazy summers. When Kelly was alive we used to take family camping holidays a lot; we’d pack a tent and a canoe and take off for a few weeks. We’d go up to Jasper, or when Steve and Krista lived near Prince Albert National Park we’d stay with them. Emma and I still like to do things like that, and we’ve got a folk music festival and a Shakespeare festival we like to go to as well”.

At that moment Emma appeared in the doorway with her cousins. I smiled at her; “Come to join the old folks?”

“We’re getting thirsty”, she replied with a grin.

“Come and sit down”, said my mother; “The lemonade’s almost finished but I can easily go in and make some more”.

“I’ll do that, Irene”, Alyson said, getting to her feet and reaching for the pitcher; “You stay right where you are”.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course; I’ll be back in a minute”. She gave us a smile and then turned and slipped into the house.

My mother reach up and took Emma’s hand. “You were sounding very nice in there, my dear”.

“Thanks”, Emma replied as she and the other kids sat down with us. “Am I going to get to hear you play at all this afternoon?”

“Oh, I don’t know; I’m a bit out of practice”.

“We’re a friendly audience, aren’t we, Dad?”

“Of course we are!” I replied; “You should play for us, Mum”.

She shrugged; “Alright, if you insist – but I want another glass of lemonade first!”

“Fair enough”.

She smiled sheepishly at me; “And as for you, I want you to forget all the critical things I said about your playing when I was teaching you!”

Emma laughed; “Were you a tough teacher, Grandma?”

“Your dad definitely thought I was!”

“It’s okay”, I replied playfully; “I seem to have survived the trauma well enough. And you did succeed in teaching at least two of us to play”, I added, smiling at my mother.

“I did, didn’t I? And Becca still plays occasionally, so it’s not all been lost”.

“I haven’t heard Auntie Becca play piano in a long time”, said Emma.

“Well then, you’ll need to get after her too, won’t you?” my mother replied.

“I guess I will!”

******
Link to Chapter 6

‘A Time to Mend’ – Chapter 4

Link back to Chapter 3

When I finished ‘Meadowvale’ it turned out that there were some inconsistencies with ‘A Time to Mend’ (which I wrote first, over ten years ago, even though chronologically it comes after ‘Meadowvale’). So – I’m having another go at ‘A Time to Mend’ to bring it back in sync with ‘Meadowvale’. Here’s the fourth chapter.

******

Two weeks after my interview, I received an email offering me the position at Gypsy Lane School in Headington. Emma gave me a triumphant high-five when I told her the news; “Back to your old stomping grounds, then?”

“Yeah. It looks like things might have changed quite a bit since the last time I taught there, though”.

“Are you nervous?”

“A little. It’s nearly twenty-one years since I’ve started at a new school”.

“And in a different country, too”.

“Yeah”.

She gave me an inquiring look; “How do you feel?”

“Mixed feelings, I guess. I think it’s the right thing to do, but I can’t say I’m looking forward to leaving Meadowvale – even for just a couple of years”.

She nodded, looking down at the floor; “I know what you mean”.

I stepped forward and put my arms around her, and for a moment we held each other close. When she looked up at me again, I saw that there were tears in her eyes, and I kissed her gently on the forehead. “I can still say no”, I said softly.

She shook her head. “I know it’s the right thing to do and I’m actually pretty excited about it. But, like you said…”

“Yeah, I know”.

******

I booked our flights to England for the night of July 31st, arriving in London on August 1st; it did not occur to me until afterwards that this would be twenty-one years to the day since I had first arrived in Meadowvale. It was Will Reimer, my father-in-law, who pointed this out to me. “I still remember you coming into the arrivals lounge that day with your guitar case and your long hair and your scrawny little beard. I don’t mind telling you, I wondered how long you would last in Meadowvale!”

I laughed; “I just remember how hot it was. Hot and dry; I’d never felt anything quite like that before. And I remember having supper at your house that night, sitting out on the back deck with you and Sally, trying to keep my eyes open through the conversation”.

“Yeah – you were doing your best to stay awake but we could see how tired you were”.

“Little did I know how many times I’d be coming over to your place for backyard barbecues in the years to come!”

“Isn’t that the truth? Well then – we’d better have another one before you and Emma leave”.

And so a couple of nights before our move Will and Sally hosted a farewell barbecue for us at their house. Will was seventy-two now; his beard had long since turned white and it took him longer to get up out of a lawn chair, but he was as gregarious as ever and he still loved having company in his spacious back yard during the warm months of summer.

Joe and Ellie were there, along with Jake and Jenna. Jake was working all summer for a local beekeeper, as he had done for the past three years; Jenna, meanwhile, was working as a lifeguard at the local swimming pool and she was as brown as a berry from days spent out under the sun. Ellie brought her fiddle and Jake brought his guitar, and I knew we would have music that night, especially when I saw Darren Peterson arriving with his mandolin and banjo.

Kelly’s younger sister Krista and her husband Steve Janzen came up from Saskatoon with their children Mike and Rachel. Steve worked as a wildlife habitat specialist with the Saskatchewan government, and Krista ran her own consulting business as well as teaching wildlife biology at the university. When our kids were little it was Steve who had first dubbed them ‘the Pack’. Nowadays of course the members of the Pack were all teenagers; Mike was sixteen and Rachel fourteen, and although they lived in Saskatoon they were as close as ever to Emma and Jake and Jenna. The Pack had some honorary members too; Brenda Nikkel’s son Ryan was now twenty and her daughter Jessica was fifteen. They were there that night, along with Brenda’s sister Erika, her husband John Rempel and three of their four children; their youngest son Dustin had graduated with Emma and the two of them were good friends.

Rhonda Janzen had also graduated with Emma; she was the youngest daughter of John and Ruth Janzen. Ruth was the sister of my principal Don Robinson, and John was Steve Janzen’s older brother. He had taken over his father-in-law Mike Robinson’s carpentry business when Mike retired; it had been John who had first gotten Kelly and I interested in Habitat for Humanity, and over the years we had spent many hours working with John and Ruth on Habitat building sites in Saskatoon and down in Mexico.

Glenn and Karla Pickering came to the barbecue with their children Molly and Tommy; Glenn was one of my oldest friends in Meadowvale and we had all been very happy when he had married Ellie Reimer’s sister in 1988. Don and Lynda Robinson were there too, along with their younger daughter Beth Fuhr. Don was Kelly’s cousin; he had been my friend and teaching colleague through all my years in Meadowvale and had taken over as principal at our high school when Will retired. As for Beth, she had not only been Emma’s babysitter, she had also been one of the founding members of an informal youth gathering that met at our house once or twice a month for several years in the 1990s. We had always resisted calling it the church youth group as it was not formally connected to our church; we saw it more as a casual gathering of friends, meeting at their request and discussing issues that were important to them.

Kelly and I had become very fond of all the members of that group, but Beth was special to us and over the years we had become very close to her. Her parents were not churchgoers but her grandmother Rachel Robinson was; she had begun taking her granddaughter to church when she was five, not long after I moved to Meadowvale, and over the years Beth had developed a thoughtful Christian faith of her own. Even though she had lived in Saskatoon for some years we still saw her frequently and made a point of visiting her when we were down in the city. Her accountant husband Greg, however, did not share either her Christian faith or her attachment to the community of Meadowvale; occasionally he came with her when she visited her old home but most of the time she came by herself.

Another member of our old Sunday night group was Megan Neufeld. Megan’s father Rob had been our pastor for most of my years in Meadowvale; he had baptized Kelly and me in February of 1984 as well as officiating at our wedding in October that year. Rob and his wife Mandy now lived in Saskatoon but they made a point of coming up for our farewell barbecue along with Megan and her younger brother Matthew.

Will Reimer’s older brother Hugo and his wife Millie also came. Hugo was seventy-five and he and Millie had been living in town for a couple of years, but he still drove out frequently to the old Reimer farm at Spruce Creek which had been their home for almost as long as I had known them; it was now being worked by their grandson Dan Rempel, John and Erika’s oldest son. Kelly had loved riding horses and when she was eleven Hugo had given her a horse, Jackson, who he had kept out at the farm for her. For many years we had visited out there regularly; I had learned to ride on Hugo’s horses, and so had Emma. Hugo and Millie had become dear friends of mine, along with their daughters Erika Rempel and Brenda Nikkel and their youngest son Donny, who lived in Saskatoon with his partner Alan Chambers. Donny’s coming out as a gay man ten years ago had been a seismic event in the Reimer family, but over time Kelly and I had become very fond of Donny and Alan. They didn’t usually come to large gatherings in Meadowvale, but I was glad they had made an exception for our farewell barbecue.

“Holy crap!” Dan Rempel said to me as he looked around the crowded back yard; “You sure have a truckload of friends!”

“Not bad for a shy introvert, eh?”

“You, an introvert? Surely not; you’re one of the most social people I know”.

“I think you’re confusing me with Kelly. She was the gregarious one; I was just freeloading on her”.

“Well if that’s true you disguised it well”.

“Thanks. You didn’t bring your lovely lady with you tonight?”

“She’s working, unfortunately, and she couldn’t get out of it”. Dan had married Cara Ratzlaff  the previous summer; she had been one of my high school students too, a year behind Dan, and she was now working at the Meadowvale Special Care Home.

There were plenty of conversations that night; I wandered around the yard all evening chatting with everyone, and I saw that Emma was doing the same thing, although she also spent a lot of time with Jenna who was her closest friend. Later on the musicians all got together as I had expected, and for an hour we went around the circle playing our songs for each other. The configurations had changed a little over the years; Ellie and Darren, my old musical partners, were now playing much more frequently with Ellie’s son Jake, who was a big bluegrass fan and had become a very good flat picker on his dreadnought guitar. Emma sometimes played along with them too, although she had wider musical tastes than they did. Will Reimer played old classic country tunes, and he and Ellie and I also played gospel songs together; we were still leading the worship music regularly at our church on Sundays, as we had done for the past twenty years. As for me, I found myself more and more playing along with Beth, who had picked up my taste for the traditional folk songs of England and Ireland in a big way. She had long since come out from under my shadow and had been creating her own song arrangements for a couple of years now.

******

Toward the end of the evening, after the song circle had broken up, Beth came over and gave me a warm hug. “You keep in touch, okay?” she said.

“I will, and so will Emma”.

She looked at me in silence for a moment, and I found myself remembering the little ten year old girl who had heard me play traditional folk songs at a house concert in the summer of 1988, and had started coming over to our place soon afterwards to find out more about folk music. She was now a lovely young woman of twenty-five, dressed casually tonight in jeans and a tee-shirt, her long brown hair tied back under a ball cap. “I’m going to miss playing music with you”, she said quietly.

“I’m going to miss it too. But you don’t need me; you’re doing just fine by yourself now. You’re still playing the piano, right?”

“Oh yeah; Grandma won’t let me quit, and I enjoy it”.

“Can I ask you a personal question?”

“Sure”.

“Are you and Greg thinking of having a family any time soon?”

She nodded. “He wanted to wait until he was all finished his accounting degree, but now he’s working full time at the bank…”

“Might not be long, then?”

“Maybe”, she replied with a smile; “Sometimes these things don’t happen to order, so I’ve been told!”

“That’s true”.

“How’s your dad doing, Tom?”

“He’s having chemo right now; Becca says he’s tired all the time”.

“Are you okay?”

“Most of the time I am, but every now and again I have my moments”.

She looked up at me in silence for a moment, and then she said, “Do you need another hug?”

“Any time you like”.

She put her arms around me again and we held each other close. “We’re all going to miss you”, she said softly.

“I’ll miss you, too”. I stepped back and smiled down at her. “England’s a nice place to visit, you know”, I said.

“Oh – believe me, I’d love to come!”

“And we’d love to have you – you and any little addition you might like to bring with you”.

She laughed, reached up to kiss me on the cheek, and then turned and made her way across the yard to where Emma and Jenna were standing with some of the other young people.

“They grow up fast”, Don Robinson said as he appeared at my side with a half-empty bottle of beer in his hand, watching his daughter as she went up to Emma and put her arms out to give her a hug.

“They sure do”, I replied.

“Do you remember the first time Kelly brought you over to visit Lynda and me, when Amy and Bethie were just small?”

“I do; you never know what’s going to come of small beginnings, do you?”

“Isn’t that the truth?”

“Amy’s okay?”

“As far as I know; she’s not the best person in the world for keeping in touch. I think Bethie hears from her more often than we do”.

“I haven’t seen your dad for a while; how’s he doing?”

“He’s okay most of the time, I think, although he never says very much”.

“Maybe that’s where Amy gets it from”.

He laughed. “In person, she’s the life and soul of every party she goes to, but when she’s far away…”

“Yeah, I know what you mean”.

He glanced at me; “Don’t you be like that, Tom Masefield”, he said quietly.

“I’ll keep in touch, Don”.

“Make sure you do. That school’s going to be very different without you around”.

******

Will and Sally drove us down to the city on July 31st; Joe and Ellie and their kids came separately, and we all converged on Steve and Krista’s place for a family meal before going to the airport. I knew Will and Sally well enough to know that they were dreading this parting; nevertheless, Will tried to stay as cheerful as possible as we checked our baggage through to Toronto and then to Heathrow. We had plenty of it; several suitcases and boxes, as well as two guitars in hard cases. When it had all been checked in and the excess baggage fees paid, Emma told me that she and her cousins were going off for a walk together for a few minutes, and I nodded, knowing that there were things they would want to say to each other.

So the adults went to the coffee shop where we sat together for an hour or so, talking about little things and trying not to watch the clock. After a while the kids came back and joined us, sitting at a table by themselves to drink their lattes and continue their conversation. Eventually I looked at my watch and said, “Well, I guess we’d better be getting down to the gate”.

“Is it that time already?” Will asked.

“I’m afraid so”.

We all got to our feet reluctantly and made our way down to security. Steve gave me a hug and a smile, and then Krista put her arms around me and held me tight. “Take care of yourself, Tom Masefield”, she said, her voice catching a little in her throat. “Don’t forget you’re a Reimer, okay?”

“Never”, I replied, hugging her again and kissing her on the cheek. “Call me, okay? I really like your phone calls”.

“For sure”.

I hugged each of the children in turn, and then Ellie, and Will and Sally. Joe squeezed me in a bear hug for a long time, and when we stepped back from each other, I could see the emotion in his eyes. “You keep safe”, he said quietly, “and don’t be a stranger”.

“I won’t”.

Will was hugging Emma, and that was the point at which his cheerful composure slipped a little; I saw the tears beginning to course down his wrinkled, sunburned cheeks as he gripped his granddaughter tight. “You take care now”, he said in a husky voice. “Look after your dad for us, eh?”

Emma nodded; I could see that she was too upset to reply. She hugged her cousins one last time and then I took her hand and led her toward the security gate. We went through the metal detectors and the carry-on baggage checks, turned and waved one last time to the family and then made our way down to our departure lounge. I put my arm around her and kissed the top of her head, and she looked up at me and smiled bravely through her tears; “I love you, Dad”, she said.

“I love you too”.

All through the three and a half hour flight to Toronto she barely said a word, although she did reach out occasionally to grip my hand. We had a two hour layover in Toronto, but neither of us particularly felt the need for coffee, so we found our departure lounge and took our seats together in one of the corners; I put my arm around her, and I felt her head come down on my shoulder. “Sorry, Dad”, she whispered; “I’m looking forward to it, I really am, but right now I just don’t seem to be able to think about that”.

“I know, and I understand”.

“Thanks”.

******

I’ve never been good at sleeping on planes, and that overnight flight was no exception. I went through all my usual motions of getting comfortable, turning the light out, controlling my breathing, saying some mental prayers, and all the other sleep-inducing techniques I had come across over the years. But eventually I gave up and reached for a book from my carry-on bag; it was a new novel by one of my favourite authors, Wendell Berry, and all through the night as Emma slept beside me I lost myself in its pages.

It was not until the flight attendants began to come through the cabin with morning coffee that I finally closed the book, and by that time Emma was beginning to stretch. I smiled at her; “Good morning, sleepyhead”.

She yawned, opened one eye and looked at me; “What time is it?”

I looked at my watch; “Eleven-fifteen in the morning, U.K. time”.

“About two hours, then?”

“I think so”.

She looked over at me, her eyes bleary. “Did you sleep?”

“I rested my eyes from time to time”.

She leaned over, kissed me on the cheek and said, “I’ll be back”. Getting up, she wrapped her blanket around her and made her way toward the back of the aircraft. I noticed that at some point during the night she had taken off her sandals; her feet were bare.

When she returned to her seat the flight attendants were bringing food trays around; she shook her head at a cooked breakfast but accepted a muffin and a fruit bowl instead. I was already eating my own breakfast, and the strong airline coffee was beginning to do its work. “You slept pretty well”, I said to her.

“Yeah, I don’t remember much about the night”. She took a bite from her muffin, ate thoughtfully for a moment and then said, “Owen and Lorraine are meeting us?”

“Yeah”.

“Are they bringing Andrew and Katie?”

“I doubt it. It would have to be a big vehicle; I warned Owen that we had a lot of stuff”.

“Right”.

“I’m sure you’ll get a chance to see them pretty soon”.

She nodded. “I think Uncle Rick and his family are coming for supper at Grandma and Grandpa’s tonight”.

“You probably know more about that than I do”.

“Sarah said they’d been talking about it but no-one’s said anything since last Sunday; she says her dad’s been working late every day this week. She thinks it’s still on though”.

“I’m glad you and Sarah have been emailing each other”.

“Me too; I like her a lot”.

“Kind of a kindred spirit?”

“In some ways”. She frowned; “What’s her mom like? I barely remember her”.

“I don’t know her all that well. She and Rick started dating during my last year up at Oxford but I didn’t see much of them even then, and after I moved we didn’t really keep in touch”.

“I don’t remember them being around much last time we were there”.

“No, we only saw them once”.

“Why was that?”

I shook my head slowly. “They were in the middle of doing renovations on their house. Rick was working a lot of hours too, but that’s always the story with him”.

“It seems weird that we were there for five weeks and only saw them once”.

“A little different from our Meadowvale family, eh?”

“Yeah”. She looked down at the food tray in front of her, her mood suddenly subdued. “I miss them already”.

“I know; so do I”.

She glanced at me with sadness in her eyes. “Sorry I was such a wreck last night; I wasn’t much help to you, was I?”

I took her hand. “It was always going to be tough. Don’t feel bad about feeling bad – or mad, either, if you want”.

She smiled; “The problem is I can’t quite figure out who to be mad at. It’s not Grandpa’s fault he’s dying of cancer and it’s not your fault you want to be with him while he’s still alive. I guess I could be mad at God but he kinda holds all the cards, doesn’t he? Anyway – I’ve had enough experience at being mad at him to know it’s not really very satisfying, on account of the fact that he refuses to get mad back!”

I squeezed her hand; “I guess that’s true, although I’ve never heard it put quite that way before”.

“Well anyway, thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll steer clear of ‘mad’ and just stick to ‘sad’ for now if that’s okay with you?”

“That’s fine, love”.

******

Owen Foster and I had first met when I moved to Northwood from the Oxford suburb of Summertown at the age of eleven. He was the oldest of four children; his father taught English at the high school in the nearby town of Wallingford. We spent most of our holiday time together that summer; we walked in the country for miles, and he took me out on the river and taught me to paddle a canoe. In September we went to high school in Wallingford together, and by then we were fast friends. We got our first guitars at the same time, and in our mid-teens we spent hours working out how to play songs by the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Wings, and the other popular bands and artists of the early 1970’s. Later on we fell under the spell of traditional folk music, and by the time we went up to university together we had learned many of the old songs from recordings by people like Anne Briggs, Nic Jones, Steeleye Span and Martin Carthy.

Owen’s family was strongly Christian and as he moved into his teens he became more intentional about his own Christian faith. No one in my family attended church except at Christmas, but Owen went with his family every week. When we were in our late teens I became more curious about this part of his life and I began asking him questions about God and spirituality; he was always happy to talk about it but he never tried to coerce me into adopting his beliefs.

Owen’s father was a firm but patient teacher; in fact he was the one who gave me the idea of becoming a teacher myself. I kept quiet about this for a long time, but I remember vividly the first time I mentioned it to my parents. It was in my fifteenth year, during the Easter holidays, and we were eating our evening meal; Rick would have been thirteen at the time and Becca about three. My father had begun to talk about how I would be going up to Oxford in a few years to read Law. I had been aware of his plans for me for a long time but until then I had made no comment about them. On that day however, something made me decide to speak up. “Actually”, I said, “I don’t want to read Law”.

My father looked up at me sharply. “What? What are you talking about?”

“I think I’d like to be a teacher”.

“A teacher! Don’t be ridiculous! You’d be condemning yourself to poverty for the rest of your life!”

“Not necessarily; Owen’s family isn’t poor and his dad’s a teacher”.

“But they can’t afford very much more than the bare necessities, can they?”

“Well, maybe there’s more to life than money”.

He snorted; “That’s a typically romantic view but romance won’t support a family and give children the sort of start in life they need. You’ve got to have a good profession with a solid income”.

“I don’t think so. I like what Mr. Foster does; I want to be a teacher like him”.

“Rather than being a lawyer like me?”

“I didn’t mean it like that”.

“Then what precisely did you mean?”

And so the ‘Great War’ began. That was what Owen called it, because of course I told him about it; he and I talked about everything. I talked to his father about it too; I was always welcome in their home and I often talked to him about things. He would never have presumed to interfere in the internal affairs of our family, but he was always willing to listen and I felt he understood and sympathized with me.

But it was my mother’s intervention in the ‘Great War’ that finally tipped the balance in my favour. It was early October in my Upper Sixth Form year; the decision about what I was going to study at university could not be put off any longer. My father wanted me to do pre-law studies but I was determined to do a B.A. in English followed by a postgraduate certificate in education. The discussion was taking place in the living room; my parents and I were the only ones present but as the conversation turned into an argument and the volume got louder and louder I knew Rick and Becca would be able to hear us in their rooms. My mother had given up imploring us to stop shouting at each other and was now sitting in silence, the sadness written plainly on her face.

And then something unexpected happened. My father must have been extremely frustrated; I realize now he must have felt he was losing the ‘Great War’ because only desperation could have led him to ask for my mother’s help. “Irene”, he said, “can you talk some sense into this boy?”

She had been looking down at the cup of cold tea in her hand, but now she looked straight up at him and said, “I think you should let him do what he wants to do”.

I had rarely seen my father so angry. His face turned purple with rage; he opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. Turning on his heel, he strode out of the room, slamming the door behind him. The room was tense: I hardly dared to breathe. My mother was silent. Eventually I raised my eyes and looked across at her. “Thank you”, I whispered.

“Follow your dream, Tom”, she replied; “It’s the only thing any of us can ever call our own”.

From that point on my father never mentioned my plans for university. My mother helped me make all the arrangements and in September of 1977 Owen and I went up to Oxford together. He was studying medicine and I was doing an English degree, so we were never in the same classes, but we were both living at Lincoln College and we saw each other almost every day. We walked together, played music together, and went to pubs and coffee shops and concerts together. Even Wendy Howard, our musical partner through our later university years and a close friend to us both, was still very much a newcomer to us, and after I moved to Canada in 1982 we both lost touch with her. But we remained in contact with each other, and after twenty-one years on opposite sides of the Atlantic our friendship was stronger than ever.

******

Owen was waiting for us as we emerged from the doorway into the arrivals lounge. At forty-five he was still taller than me, with short dark hair, dark eyes and a thin-faced, rascally look about him. He had managed to position himself right at the end of the rope barrier, exactly where he needed to be to meet us; we saw him immediately and steered our baggage carts toward him. He welcomed us both with warm hugs, grinned at my bleary eyes and said “Didn’t you sleep on the plane?”

“I never sleep on planes”.

“Of course not – it would be in such poor taste. Come on then – the car’s not far away”.

“Will we be able to fit all this luggage in?”

“Don’t worry – I rented an MPV”. He pulled a mobile phone out of his pocket, punched in a number and put the phone to his ear. “Hello, it’s me”, he said; “They’re here. Right – see you out front”. He closed the phone, slipped it back into his pocket, grinned at us and said, “That was Lorraine; she’ll be out front in about four minutes”.

We pushed our baggage carts out into the warm afternoon sun; when we reached the pick up area Emma took Owen’s arm and said, “How are Andrew and Katie doing?”

“Oh, they’re fine. We took them off to Essex for a cheap holiday last week; my sister lives at Clacton and she and her husband had gone away for a few days, so they told us to use their house. I don’t suppose you get to the seaside very often in Saskatchewan, do you?”

Emma laughed. “We never get to the seaside in Saskatchewan; Waskesiu Lake’s the best we can do!”

Owen gestured toward the guitar cases on the baggage carts; “Still playing your dad’s old guitar, then?”

“I’m a lucky girl”, she replied, glancing at me with a grin; “It’s such a great guitar. Of course I’m nowhere near as good as Dad”.

“Keep working at it; we all had to start somewhere”.

I put my hand on Emma’s shoulder; “She’s way better than I was at seventeen”.

Owen smiled at her. “We’ll have to hear you play soon. Maybe your dad will bring you out to the open stage at the pub we used to play at”.

“The ‘Plough’ still has live music, then?” I asked.

“Yes, open stage on Friday nights and concerts on Saturday nights. Our band’s actually playing a Saturday night gig there in a couple of weeks”.

“Is Bill Prentiss still running the place?”

“Yes, but he tells me he’s only going to go on for a couple more years; I think he turned sixty-three last month”. Owen put his arm around Emma; “Has your dad told you about the ‘Plough and Lantern’?”

“I think we went there for lunch with Auntie Becca last time we were here; I remember the guy who ran the place had a thick grey beard”.

“That’s Bill; he’s had that pub since we were in university”.

“Dad said there used to be a lot of traditional folk music there”.

“There still is”.

Emma smiled at me; “Are we going to go, then?”

“If you’d like”.

“I would like”.

At that moment a blue Mazda MPV pulled up in front of us; the driver’s side door opened and Lorraine Foster got out. She was as tall as Owen, with greying red hair cut just above her shoulders; she came over to us, greeted me with a hug and a kiss and then turned to my daughter. “Look at you, Emma Masefield!” she said; “You’ve grown into a real beauty!”

“Thanks”, Emma replied with a shy smile.

Lorraine kissed her on the cheek, gave her a warm hug and then said, “Right, let’s get your stuff loaded up”.

I saw that they had removed the third seat to make room for all our luggage. We quickly loaded everything into the van, and then Owen slammed the tailgate shut.

“You ride up front with Owen, Tom”, Lorraine said; “I’ll sit back here with Emma”.

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely”.

We got into the van and Owen pulled away from the loading area onto Cromer Road and then down toward the tunnel under the runway. He glanced at me; “So you’re still planning on staying at your mum and dad’s for a few weeks?”

“Yeah, until we find a place of our own”.

“Are you sure? I seem to remember that didn’t go very well for you last time”.

“No – it was a little tense”.

“More than a little. If you find you need a break, come over to us for a few days”.

“Thanks, but I’m here to build bridges with my dad; I don’t think running away will help the situation”.

“If you’re sure”.

“I’m sure”.

He glanced at Emma in his rear view mirror; “Are you tired, Em?”

“I’m fine – I slept well on the plane”.

“You’re not in any particular hurry to get to Northwood, then?”

“No – why?”

“I thought I’d take the slow route up through the Chilterns; there’s some pretty villages and towns on the way”.

“Sounds good.”

“Of course, we’ll be going past Windsor Castle in a few minutes; we can always check and see if the Queen’s at home, if you like?”

We laughed, and Emma said, “I don’t think we’ve ever been there, have we, Dad?”

“No; shall we put it on our to-do list?”

“Maybe”.

Sure enough, a few minutes later we passed the familiar bulk of Windsor Castle on our left. I saw Emma looking at it intently as we sped past on the motorway; “How old is it?” she asked me.

“It was built in the eleventh century; I think it was one of William the Conqueror’s castles. There’s a really nice park around it; you approach the castle by way of a long road called ‘the royal mile’. That view’s definitely worth seeing”.

She was quiet for a moment, continuing to gaze out of the window. “Looks like the Queen’s got room for a few homeless people in there”, she said.

Owen laughed; “So speaks the daughter of Kelly Masefield!”

“I could do worse”.

“Yes you could, Emma Dawn. If you’ll take the advice of your uncle Owen, though, you’ll be careful about making statements like that when you’re with your grandpa Masefield!”

Emma loved the drive up through the Chiltern hills; Owen purposely left the main roads behind, taking us through picturesque little villages with old grey stone houses lining narrow streets. We passed village greens with quaint little churches, and pubs with names like ‘The Blue Boar’, ‘The King’s Head’, and ‘The Angler’s Arms’. It would have been hard to imagine a stronger contrast with the long straight roads and wide open spaces we had left behind.

We came down into the Thames Valley again at Wallingford, where Owen and I had gone to High School. We crossed the river on the old stone bridge with its graceful arches, and then turned toward our old home town of Northwood. Owen glanced over his shoulder at Emma; “Nearly there now”, he said; “Do you want to ring your grandma and tell her to put the kettle on?”

She laughed; “Can I?”

“Of course; Lorraine’s got a mobile in her pocket”.

Lorraine handed her mobile to Emma; Emma asked me for the number, punched it in on the keypad and put the phone to her ear. After a moment she said, “Grandma? Yeah, it’s me – Emma… Yeah, we’re fine. Uncle Owen says we’re almost at your place; we’re just driving through Wallingford now. Do you want to put the kettle on? Uncle Owen told me I should call and ask you”. She listened for a moment and then laughed and grinned at Owen; “Grandma says you’re just as cheeky as ever”.

“Well, at least I can be relied on to be entertaining!”

“Okay Grandma”, she said, “We’ll see you in a few minutes. I love you – bye!” She closed the phone, handed it back to Lorraine with a grin and said “I think she enjoyed that!”

“I’ll bet she did”, Owen replied.

We crossed the river again beside the Kingfisher pub and drove through the village of Northwood; Emma was keeping her eyes open for familiar landmarks, and she recognized the old fifteenth century church on the west side of the village green. “I remember going to that church last time”, she said.

“You had a few conversations with the vicar”, I replied.

“Yeah, he was a nice man”.

A minute later Owen turned off the road onto my parents’ long driveway and we saw the old house up ahead. “Wow!” said Emma; “I’d forgotten how big it is! I remember the spiral staircase and the lake out back, and the orchard”.

Owen pulled up opposite the front door and turned off the engine. As we climbed out of the car my mother was already coming out to greet us; the afternoon was warm, and she was wearing a loose summer blouse which left her arms bare. She and I embraced, and then she turned to her granddaughter with a smile. “Hello, Emma”, she said, holding out her arms; “Welcome back to Northwood”.

Emma returned her smile and gave her a gentle hug; “Thanks Grandma; it’s great to see you”.

“I’ve got your usual room all ready”, my mother said to her. She smiled at Owen; “You’re still just as cheeky as you ever were, Owen Foster!” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

“Thank you, Mrs. M.”, he replied; “I’ll take that as a compliment. We’ll help carry Tom and Emma’s stuff inside”.

“Thank you – that would be very kind”.

And so we all went inside, and Emma grinned when she saw the spiral staircase; “Just like I remembered!” We took our bags and boxes up to our rooms, and then my mother turned to Owen and Lorraine; “Will you join us for a cup of that tea?”

Owen shook his head with a grin. “It’s kind of you Mrs. M., but Andrew and Katie are at my mum and dad’s and they can be a bit boisterous after a while, so I think we’d better go and pick them up”.

“Some time soon then? I’ll look forward to hearing you and Tom play together again”.

He nodded; “Absolutely”, he replied, bending down to kiss her on the cheek. He grinned at me; “See you later, then”.

“Thanks”, I said; “and thank you, Lorraine”.

“No trouble”, she replied with a smile, and Owen winked at Emma and said “Make sure your dad behaves himself!”

“I will. Are you guys going to be home for the next few days?”

“As far as I know; have you got something in mind?”

Emma grinned; “Well, I like Andrew and Katie you know!”

“Come over any time you like; just give us a ring to make sure someone’s in”.

“I’ll do that!”

My mother left us alone in our rooms for a few minutes while we ‘freshened up’, as she called it. I splashed cold water on my face, changed into a clean shirt and then went down the hall to Emma’s room. It was in the old servants’ section at the back of the house, but it had been beautifully redecorated as a guest room and it had an excellent view out over the apple orchard. I knocked lightly on the door and heard Emma answer “Come in”. She was standing at her window looking out over the trees and the fields below, a faraway look in her eyes. “I’d forgotten what a magical place this is”, she said quietly.

“Do you still like the grounds?”

“I love them; can we go out and look around?”

“In a while, but first we need to go drink that tea we asked Grandma to make for us, and then before too long it’ll be time to eat”. I kissed her on the top of her head; “So this room’s still okay for you, then?”

She turned from the window and surveyed her surroundings. The ceilings were lower in the old servants’ quarters, giving the rooms a cosy feeling; the wallpaper was quiet and tasteful, the curtains at the window simple and elegant. The single bed had a polished antique wood headboard, with a matching bedside table on the window side.

“It’s great”, she said; “It always has been”.

At that moment there was a knock on the door and Becca slipped into the room, dressed in a summer skirt and loose top, a warm smile on her face; “There you are!” she said.

Emma laughed with delight, and the next moment the two of them were hugging, kissing each other on the cheek, leaning back to smile at each other and then hugging again. I grinned at them; “Didn’t you two see each other a month ago?”

“Don’t be rude, Tommy”, Becca replied mischievously, coming over to me and giving me a hug and a kiss; “I’m allowed to be glad to see my niece”.

“Yes, you are. Are you glad to see your brother, too?”

“Very glad”. She looked up at me with a sympathetic smile; “You look a little tired there!”

“You know me and planes!”

“Are you staying for supper, Auntie Becca?” asked Emma.

“Absolutely, and Rick and his family will be here in a little while too. And tomorrow’s Saturday and I’ve got the day off, so if you want you and I can spend the day together”.

Emma laughed; “What’s the plan?”

“Anything you like. Coffee at a fancy café, sightseeing in Oxford, walking – it’s up to you”.

“That’s if she’s still awake and over her jet lag”, I observed with a grin.

“I’ll be awake,” said Emma. “Will you be alright without me, Dad?”

“Absolutely; I may even do a bit of wandering around myself”.

“Anyway”, said Becca, “I was sent up here to summon you to the living room for tea. When the rest of the family arrives we’ll move into the dining room for dinner”.

“Right”, I said with a grin; “Are you ready, Emma Dawn?”

“I am!”

“Lead the way, Doctor Masefield”, I said to Becca.

My brother and his family arrived a little later than expected, at about six forty-five. Rick had obviously come straight from work; he had removed his jacket and tie but was still wearing his suit pants and white shirt. Emma and Sarah greeted each other warmly; Sarah introduced Emma to Eric and Anna, and Eric smiled and said, “You’re a bit shorter than I thought you would be!”

“I take after my mom, so I’ve been told”.

“I don’t really remember her very well. She didn’t seem especially short to me – but then I would have been shorter, too, I suppose”.

They talked amongst themselves for a few minutes, and then Emma turned to my mother and said, “Do you mind if us kids go up to my room for a few minutes, Grandma?”

“Of course not; we’ll probably be starting dinner just after seven o’clock”.

Sarah glanced at Alyson; “Is that alright?”

“Go on”, Alyson replied with a grin; “We’ll call you when we’re going to eat!”

I smiled at Rick, gesturing toward his formal clothes; “You didn’t have to dress up for me, you know!”

“I had a late afternoon meeting, so I didn’t have time to change…”

At that moment I heard a buzz from his pocket; he reached in and pulled out a Blackberry, frowned at the screen for a second and then put the phone to his ear. “Excuse me”, he said apologetically, turning to leave the living room; “I’ve got to take this”.

I grinned at Alyson; “Well, that was a quick visit!”

“Sorry; there’s something going on and I’m not quite sure what it is!”

We ate in the dining room with the French windows open to let in the warm evening air. The room was elegantly furnished with an antique dining suite; there were a couple of paintings on the walls and a formal sideboard on which to place the food. My mother and father sat at each end of the table; Rick and I sat on either side of our father, with Alyson beside Rick and Emma beside me. Becca sat on the other side of Emma, and Rick’s three children on either side of my mother.

While we were filling our plates Eric turned to his mother and said, “Mum, Emma’s got a Martin!”

Alyson looked at him quizzically; “I take it that’s a guitar of some sort?”

“It used to be Dad’s”, Emma explained; “He gave it to me not long after Mom died”.

“It’s a 1970 Martin 000-18”, I added; “It’s a fairly good guitar. You might remember it”, I said to Rick; “I bought it about the time I went up to Oxford”.

He shook his head; “I’m afraid I wasn’t taking much notice of your musical instruments at the time, bro”.

“Well, it sounds brilliant!” said Eric; “She let me play it, too”.

Emma grinned at me; “He’s pretty good – you should hear him play ‘Come on in My Kitchen’”.

I raised my eyebrows at Eric; “You play Robert Johnson songs?”

“I think Robert Johnson was brilliant!”

“How did you learn about him?”

“I heard one of his songs on the radio a couple of years ago; that’s why I wanted to learn to play guitar. Do you play his music?”

“No, but I know about him; he’s influenced a lot of people”. I looked across the table at Rick and Alyson; “You didn’t tell me this guy was into 1930s delta blues singers!”

Rick shrugged disinterestedly; “Sorry – I don’t know much about that kind of thing”.

I smiled at him; “Surely you’re not still listening to Mott the Hoople and Slade, are you?”

“It gets worse”, Alyson replied with a mischievous smile; “When he thinks there’s no one in the house, he occasionally plays his old Gary Glitter singles”.

Becca looked at Rick with a bemused expression on her face; “I vaguely remember you having some Bay City Rollers LPs, too”.

“He’s still got them”, Alyson confirmed, “but he doesn’t dare play them when the children are around!”

“What on earth are you people talking about?” my father asked.

“Our misspent youth”, I replied; “Apparently there’s still more to my brother than a suit and a Blackberry”.

My mother was looking at Rick affectionately; “I never had much success getting you interested in classical piano, did I?”

“Not for want of trying”, he replied, and at that moment his Blackberry buzzed again in his pocket.

“Can’t you turn that thing off?” asked Becca.

“I’m afraid not”, he replied, putting it to his ear as he got to his feet; “This is rather a big contract. Sorry, Mum – excuse me”.

I had been shocked when I first saw my father again. His hair by now was completely gone, which I had expected, but I also noticed that his skin colour had faded, the lines on his face were deeper and his voice was even thinner than it had been at Easter. He ate very little of his food, pecking at it disinterestedly, putting his knife and fork down when he asked Rick the occasional work-related question. He paid very little attention to the conversation of his grandchildren – partly, I suspected, because he couldn’t hear them very well – but Rick’s three children were obviously used to this and they continued to talk amongst themselves and with Emma. By the time my mother was serving the coffee and dessert Emma was talking to her cousins about our extended family in Meadowvale and the other people she was close to there; it was at that point that eleven-year old Anna, who had been mainly quiet so far, looked across at her with a little frown and said, “Did you ever wish you had a brother or sister?”

Alyson put her hand on her daughter’s arm; “Maybe we should talk about something else”, she said quietly.

“It’s alright”, Emma assured her; “I don’t mind”. She glanced at me, as if to make sure I was okay with the conversation, and then turned back to Anna. “I did wonder occasionally what it would be like to have a brother or sister, I guess, but I didn’t really think about it very much. And I had four cousins real close, and all my second and third cousins – I have so many of them I have a hard time keeping track!”

“It’s a really big family”, Becca explained to Anna; “Emma’s Grandpa’s got seven brothers and sisters”.

“And Kelly’s mum was one of seven siblings too”, I added. I smiled at Anna; “Sometimes we have family reunions but we have to hire the community hall for them because so many people come”.

“They have family reunions, do they?” Rick asked; “People actually attend that sort of thing?”

“Yes, they’re very popular in Saskatchewan”.

“What exactly does one do at a family reunion?”.

My mother was passing cups of coffee around; I paused to accept one from her, and Emma said, “We actually just had one at the beginning of July”.

“What did you do?” asked Rick.

“On the Friday night we had a huge supper at the community hall; there were about three hundred people there, so there was like, a whole lot of food! We had a big family tree up on the wall with all kinds of photographs, and we’d asked people to bring more, so that was fun – people kept adding pictures all weekend. The first night we had a kind of barn dance – but not in a barn, of course!” She smiled at me; “Dad was one of the musicians”.

Rick grinned at me; “I didn’t know you played danceable music, bro!”

“Yeah, but not ‘Dancing Queen’ or ‘Stayin’ Alive’!”

“What sort of thing were you playing?”

“Mainly bluegrass. Ellie Reimer got me into that a long time ago; back in the nineties I was in a band with her and our friend Darren Peterson. We don’t play together very much any more but we had a bit of a reunion for this event”.

“A reunion for a family reunion!” said Becca.

“I guess so”.

Rick leaned back a little in his chair, taking a sip of his coffee; “Tell us more about the proceedings, Emma”.

She shrugged; “There’s not much more to tell really. On Saturday we had a pancake breakfast in the morning and a softball tournament in the afternoon, and then in the evening we had another big meal. Some of the people hadn’t seen each other in a long time so there was a lot of visiting and conversation. On Sunday some of us went to church together, and then in the early afternoon there was another meal – like I said, there was a lot of eating! After that people started to head for home”.

“And these were all Reimers, were they?”

“Actually”, I said, “it was a Wiens family reunion – Kelly’s mum’s family”.

“There were some Reimers there too though”, Emma added.

“I guess so; there’s been more than one marriage between the two families over the years”.

“And the Janzens and Robinsons”.

I grinned; “Yeah, I guess pretty well every family in Meadowvale has been connected with the Wiens’ at some point!”

Eric, who had been listening carefully, said, “It must be very different to have a family that big, with all those distant relatives, and to have them actually come together all at once. I don’t think our family has ever done that, have they?”

“I don’t know whether to be happy or sad!” Rick replied sarcastically; “I find some of our relatives hard to take when they come in ones and twos, let alone in packs!”

“But don’t you think it would be interesting? I mean, the only cousins I’ve got are Ewan and David and Emma, and it’s not like we see each other very often”. He smiled at Emma and me; “It must be rather nice to be part of a big family like that”.

“I like it”, I agreed.

Emma grinned at me; “I guess you and Mom kind of met at a family gathering, didn’t you? Not as big as a family reunion, but…”

I laughed. “I thought it was big enough at the time; little did I know what I was in for!”

“When was that?” asked Sarah.

“October 1982; I had moved to Meadowvale that summer, and Kelly’s dad was the principal at my school. He and his wife were always inviting me over for meals and in October they invited me round to their place for Thanksgiving dinner. There were a few others there: Joe and Ellie had just gotten engaged, and Krista – that’s Kelly’s younger sister – was home from university. And there was also Kelly’s grandma Reimer and her grandma and grandpa Weins, and her uncle David and his wife Anna. And there was Kelly; she was working as a nurse in Jasper at the time but she had come home for a few days over Thanksgiving. So that’s when we met”.

“How long after that did you get married?” Sarah asked.

“Two years, almost to the day; we were married on Thanksgiving weekend in 1984”.

“My brother, the hopeless romantic”, Rick observed with a grin, draining his coffee cup just in time for his Blackberry to buzz again.

“Are you choreographing that?” asked Becca.

He shook his head apologetically at my mother as he got to his feet and put the phone to his ear again; “Richard Masefield”, he said.

Much later on, I was sitting up in my bed reading by the light of a single bedside lamp when I heard a quiet knock on my door.

“Come on in”, I said.

The door opened slightly and Emma slipped into the room, dressed in her old cotton pyjama bottoms and a dark blue tee-shirt, her hair tied back in a pony tail. “Do you mind if I sit with you for a minute?” she asked.

“Of course not”.

She came and sat down on the bed, glancing at the book in my hands. “Is that a new Wendell Berry book?”

“Yes”.

“What’s it called?”

Jayber Crow”.

“I haven’t tried Wendell Berry yet”.

“I think you’d like him. He’s a good poet, too – that might be a good place to start”.

“I’ll have to have a look when your books get here”.

“For sure”.

She was quiet for a moment, her eyes down, and eventually I said, “Something bothering you?”

She shook her head; “Not really. It’s just that – well, I liked talking about Mom at the table, but afterwards I felt a little sad”.

“Me too”.

“So I thought I’d come and sit with you for a minute”.

“I’m glad you did”.

She leaned forward, kissed me on the forehead and said, “Uncle Rick’s really taken up with work, isn’t he?”

“Well, he’s a senior partner in a busy law firm”.

“Is that what it was like with Grandpa when you guys were kids?”

“There were no Blackberries in those days”.

“I guess not”.

“But he always brought work home, and sometimes the phone would ring for him”.

“That must have gotten annoying after a while”.

I shrugged; “I bring stuff home with me two or three nights a week, too”.

“Yeah, but you leave it down in your office when you’re done, and you always make time to do things with me”.

“Well, I’ve probably spent my life trying not to be like my dad”.

“He’s really not looking too good, is he?”

I shook my head; “I think he’s had seven chemo treatments now, with a little break after the third and the sixth, and he’s due another one in a couple of weeks”.

“How many does he have to have?”

“I don’t think there’s really an end in sight; I think they’re just doing their best to control the cancer. A lot will depend on how much his body can take”.

“That’s got to be tough”.

“Yes”.

She pulled her legs up on the bed, hugged her knees under her chin, and smiled at me; “I like my cousins”.

“Good”.

“They’re all different from each other”.

“They are, aren’t they?”

“You and Uncle Rick are different, too”.

“Yes, we are”. I frowned; “I remember one of the times we were here visiting while your mum was still alive. Grandma had arranged for everyone to get together here for a meal a day or two before we went home. I have a very vivid memory of watching your mum walking on the grass with Alyson, obviously deep in conversation, while Rick and I were struggling to find things to talk about”.

She put her hand on mine; “That’s sad”.

“Yes, it is. Most of the time I don’t think about it, with us living so far away”.

“Not so far any more”.

“No – for a little while, anyway”.

She stifled a yawn. “Okay, I’m really sleepy, but I just wanted to come and make sure you were okay”.

“I’m fine, love; thanks for checking on me, though”.

“You’re welcome”. She leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead; “Goodnight”, she said.

“Goodnight, sweetheart”.

She smiled at me again, then got up and slipped quietly out of the room.

********

Link to Chapter 5

‘A Time to Mend’, Chapter 3

Link back to Chapter 2

When I finished ‘Meadowvale’ it turned out that there were some inconsistencies with ‘A Time to Mend’ (which I wrote first, over ten years ago, even though chronologically it comes after ‘Meadowvale’). So – I’m having another go at ‘A Time to Mend’ to bring it back in sync with ‘Meadowvale’. Here’s the third chapter.

I landed at Heathrow Airport on Easter Sunday in the early afternoon. Becca was waiting for me in the arrivals lounge, standing on the edge of the crowd and waving furiously in my direction; twelve years my junior and slightly shorter than me, she was dressed casually in jeans and a light spring jacket, her dark hair hanging loose to her shoulders. I walked over to her, and she greeted me with a warm hug and a kiss; “Hello, you!” she said.

“Happy Easter, Becs”.

“Same to you. You look tired; here, give me your bag. How’s Emma?”

“She’s fine; she drove me to the airport yesterday”.

“Oh right – I keep forgetting she’s got a driving license now!”

“I know; doesn’t seem that long since she was a baby, does it?”

“No”. She looked up at me with a sympathetic grin; “You really do look wiped out there, Tommy! Do you want to pick up a coffee for the road?”

“That would be great”.

“Come on, then – there’s a coffee shop in the corner over there”.

We lined up for a few minutes to get our coffees, and then made our way out of the terminal building into the spring sunshine and across to the multi-story car park. We took an elevator to the top level, where we found Becca’s little Renault squeezed between two bigger cars; she opened the doors, threw my bag in the back and said, “In you get, then”.

I slipped into the car beside her, and she leaned over and gave me another kiss on the cheek. “Oh”, she said, “before I forget – Owen told me to remind you to ring him some time this evening; they’re not leaving until first thing in the morning”.

“Right – he mentioned that”. My old friend Owen Foster, who had been a doctor in Headington for many years, was a senior partner at the medical practice where Becca worked. I had hoped to get a chance to see him while I was in England, but it had turned out that he and his family were going to France for a few days during the Easter holidays.

Becca started the car, backed out of her parking spot, and drove down toward the exit ramp. I took a sip of my coffee; “Any news about dad?”

She shrugged; “He’s lost a lot of weight and he gets tired quickly, but none of that’s especially new”.

“When’s his next chemo treatment?”

“Tuesday; this will be his third”.

“How’s it going?”

“I think he’s finding it harder than he expected – especially the nausea”.

“I expect he just takes himself off to his room when he’s feeling sick, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah; he lets Mum help him, but I’m not allowed anywhere near him when he’s like that, and I’m sure no one else is either”.

“No trouble with infections so far?”

“No, but they’re going to have to be very careful about that; it’s harder on older people. And there’s another problem too – he’s in denial”. She pulled the car up to the ticket machine, paid for her parking and then pulled out onto Cromer Road. “He’s still trying to downplay it all”, she continued; “I’ve heard him say several times that he’s just got to get through the chemo and then he’ll be fine”. She shrugged; “I don’t know if he really believes that, but it’s the line he takes when he’s talking to anyone”.

“Including Mum?”

“Yes”.

“That’s got to be hard for her”.

“I would think so”. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her frown thoughtfully. “Did you and Kelly talk honestly about her cancer, Tommy? Right from the start?”

“We did the second time. The first time she ignored the symptoms for a while”.

“Right – I remember that”.

“She was worried, but she didn’t want to tell me or anyone else for fear she’d have to leave Emma and go into hospital. But the second time around we’d learned our lesson; we were honest with each other from day one”.

“It just took you a bit longer to tell everyone else”.

I nodded; it had been a sore point between us at the time. “She didn’t want to tell a lot of other people until she was sure of the diagnosis”.

“I get it, Tommy, I really do. I didn’t at the time, but I do now”. She reached across suddenly and squeezed my hand. “I’m sorry; let’s change the subject, shall we?”

I glanced at her; “You okay?”

She nodded; “I am. It’s just that every now and again…”

“I know”.

For a moment neither of us spoke; I sipped at my coffee, and she steered the car down through the tunnel under the runway and out the other side, heading north toward the M4. I watched as the cars sped by in both directions, and then I said, “I guess Dad doesn’t go into the office anymore?”

“No, and Rick’s glad about that; ever since Dad retired Rick’s been wishing he would leave him alone”. My younger brother had followed the career path my father had wanted for me; he was now a senior partner at my father’s old law firm.

“Dad’s never found it easy to let other people run their own lives, has he?” I said.

“I’m afraid not; that’s one of the constants you can rely on! But on a happier subject – two interviews this week?”

“Yes – Headington and Cowley. I’ve already done phone interviews for Reading and High Wycombe”.

“That one in Headington – isn’t that where you did your first student placement?”

“Yes. It seems like a long time ago now”.

“You’re such an old man, Tommy!”

“I know; I get regular reminders of the fact from Emma!”.

“It must be a bit strange to think about going back there”.

“A little. It was a reasonably good experience, but of course a lot will have changed in twenty-two years”.

“I’ll be hoping for that one or Cowley; it would be nice if you were close by”. She reached over and put her hand on mine. “How are you feeling about this move? Are you sad?”

“I am. I don’t think I really believed it until I started getting involved in the interview process, but now it’s starting to sink in. I know nothing’s certain yet, and I know if I’m successful there’ll be lots of good things about living in the U.K. again, but to be honest, at the moment I’m strongly tempted to intentionally mess up the interviews”.

“I know”, she said quietly, “and I understand”.

“It’s not that I wouldn’t be glad to be closer to you and Mum, of course”.

“I know. What about Emma; how’s she feeling?”

“She’s excited about being here for a longer period of time. She likes the idea of getting a closer look at her English roots, and she wants to be able to spend some time with Mum and Dad too. But there’s another part of her that’s dreading the thought of leaving Meadowvale”.

“Of course”.

“She’s relieved that we’re not planning to sell the house; it gives us a tangible link with home”.

“Right. And then there’s her nursing training”.

“She still wants to do that, whether it’s here or back home”.

“I was talking to her about that last week. She really likes volunteering at the special care home, doesn’t she?”.

“She does; I could easily see her making a career in geriatric nursing. But to be honest I think she could do any kind of nursing she wanted”.

“Well, there’ll always be a need for nurses in England. Even if the move here turned out to be permanent, she’d probably never be short of a job”.

“We haven’t talked about making a permanent move, Becs”.

“I understand; one day at a time”.

  • * * * * *

I thought of Northwood as my childhood home, but in fact we had moved there when I was eleven. My earlier years had been spent in the Oxford suburb of Summertown, but I had actually preserved few links with the place of my birth and early childhood. It was in Northwood that I had formed my friendship with Owen; it was Northwood and the surrounding countryside that he and I had explored as teenagers; it was in Northwood that we had learned to play guitar together and had shared some of the most formative conversations of my early life. It was true that the emotional dynamics of my home life there had been complicated, but I still had a deep sense of connection with the village itself and the countryside around it.

It was a community of about two thousand people, situated in the Thames Valley just north of the town of Wallingford. It was strangely elongated; the southern area was built beside the river, but the village narrowed around the main street as it ran north-east, and then widened out again into a northern part which was almost a second community. The northern part, where my parents lived, was actually the original village of Northwood; it had expanded toward the river in the eighteenth century when the bridge across the Thames was built, with the Kingfisher Inn beside it.

We crossed the bridge at around three-thirty, driving north on the high street and passing the old 15th century church on the west side of the village green. We turned east at the church, and I looked around at the street I had once known so well, noticing the absence of a few familiar buildings and the addition of some new ones. About half a mile further on, we turned right onto a long private driveway running down past a copse of ancient elm trees; at the end of the driveway loomed the familiar bulk of my parents’ home. Built in the late eighteenth century, it was a large two-storey grey stone house with an old courtyard and stable complex off to one side, most of it now converted into garage space. Behind the house there was an apple orchard, a wood, and a small lake.

Becca pulled the car up by the front door and turned off the engine. “Well, here we are”, she said, “and here’s Mum; she must have been watching at the window”.

I looked up and saw my mother emerging from the front door; she had put on a wool cardigan before coming outside to greet us, and I noticed immediately how tired she looked, and how white her hair had turned since I had last seen her at Kelly’s funeral. I opened the car door and got out to meet her; “Hello, Mum”, I said.

“Hello, Tom; welcome home”.

I put my arms around her to give her a hug; “Happy Easter”.

“Happy Easter to you, too”.

Becca was already lifting my bag out of the trunk of the car; she kissed my mother on the cheek and asked, “How’s Dad today?”

“Alright this afternoon; he had a good nap earlier on. Shall we go inside?”

We followed her up the steps and through the doorway into the hall. The well-remembered spiral staircase swept up on our left; I took in at a glance the polished wood floor, the antique telephone table, the ornate wallpaper. My mother was already leading the way into the large living room; it was built on the southwest corner of the house, with bay windows on the two outside walls providing plenty of light. As we entered, my father rose slowly out of one of the armchairs by the fireplace, and as I crossed the room toward him he held out his hand. “So you finally came home again”, he said; “It took you long enough”.

His voice was not as strong as I remembered. He had always been tall and wiry, but now he seemed gaunt and skeletal, his back a little bent, his face narrow and pale, his few remaining wisps of grey hair combed straight back from his high forehead. The ravages of the deadly disease he was fighting were plain.

“How are you, Dad?” I asked.

“Not dead yet, at any rate”. He greeted Becca, smiling at her as she kissed him on the cheek, and then moved over to the sideboard, asking “What will you have to drink, Tom?”

“Oh, I don’t know – Scotch, I guess”.

He looked at me over his shoulder with a quizzical expression on his face. “Well? Do you want it or not?”

“Sure – yes please”.

“Becca? Dry sherry?”

“Yes please, Dad”.

He poured drinks for everyone and passed them around; “Sit down”, he said. We found our seats, he and my mother on each side of the hearth, Becca and I side by side on the chesterfield. “So”, my mother asked, “How’s Emma? Did you bring us some new pictures?”

“I did”. I reached into the inside pocket of my jacket, brought out my photographs and passed them to my mother.

“Her hair’s getting long again”, my mother observed as she looked over the pictures one by one and passed them to my father.

“Well, it’s been over two years now”. Emma had shaved her head along with her mother when Kelly’s hair had started to fall out from chemotherapy. Kelly had protested, but Emma had insisted and I had sided with her, knowing how badly she needed to feel she was doing something to show solidarity with her mum.

“Are these recent?” my mother asked.

“Just a month ago”.

“She looks more like Kelly all the time”.

“That’s what I always think”, Becca replied softly.

“Good heavens!” my mother exclaimed, pointing at one of the photographs; “Is that Jenna?”

“Yes it is”.

“She’s certainly shot up in the last couple of years, hasn’t she? Look at this, Frank”.

My father glanced at the photographs as she handed them to him. “She takes after her mother too, doesn’t she?” he said.

“She does”, I agreed, “and Jake’s more like his dad”.

“A month ago, you say? Plenty of snow still, at that time”.

“You never can tell how long it’ll stay”.

He looked at me with a bemused expression on his face; “You’ve certainly picked up the accent over the years”.

“It comes and goes; in Meadowvale they still think I sound English”.

He handed the pictures back to my mother; “Two interviews this week, then?” he asked.

“Yes, one at Gypsy Lane School in Headington, and one in Cowley; I’ve already done two by phone”.

“Headington or Cowley would be nice”, said my mother.

“You could live here”, my father suggested.

“I could, or I could start out here and then look for a place of my own once I get my feet on the ground”.

“Don’t be ridiculous – prices are far too high around here; on your salary you’d never be able to afford it. With what you could get from selling a house in Saskatchewan you’d be in no position to buy; living here would be the only reasonable thing to do”.

“I’m not thinking of selling or buying; I’d be making enough on a teacher’s salary to be able to afford to rent a small house, and I can supplement that with the money I make on renting out our place back home”.

He shook his head. “Renting is never a good idea; you’re paying out money and getting nothing in return. If you’re not going to buy, you’d be far better to stay here”.

“If I get a job nearby, I’ll certainly think about it”.

There was an awkward silence for a moment, and then Becca spoke. “Are Rick and his family still coming for supper?”

My mother nodded; “I hope you don’t mind, Tom? I thought it would be nice for us to have a family gathering, with it being a holiday today”.

“Of course not. I wouldn’t mind catching a nap before they come, though; it was a long trip, and as you know I’m not especially good at sleeping on planes”.

“That would be fine; I’ve got your old room made up for you”.

“Maybe after I’m done this drink I’ll go up and get settled in”.

  • * * * * *

A few minutes later I excused myself, picked up my bag in the hall and climbed wearily up the spiral staircase. As I pushed open the door to my old room I was confronted with a world of memory, not so much from my childhood years as from the times that Kelly and I had stayed in this room together; we had come to Northwood three times over the years as a married couple, twice in summer and once for a shorter period at Christmas. I put my bag down on the bed and walked over to the window, looking out over the lawn with the brick wall of the orchard off to the left; she and I had stood side by side at this same window many times during our last visit in the summer of 1997, and for a brief moment the sense of her presence was so strong that I almost felt I could reach out and put my arm around her.

I heard a quiet knock on the door, and as I turned Becca slipped into the room. She came over and put her hand on my arm; “I just came up to make sure you were okay”.

“Thank you; I’m fine”.

She kissed me gently on the cheek, smiled at me, and said, “Are you sure?”

“Yes. But you’re a good woman, Becca Masefield”.

She shook her head; “I don’t know about that”.

I went over to the bed and began to unpack my bag; “Are you working tomorrow?”

“No, I don’t start again until Tuesday, and I’m not on call either; I did my bit Good Friday and yesterday”.

“Are you staying out here, then?”

“Just tonight; I’m going home tomorrow after supper”.

“Maybe some time tomorrow we could wander down to the Kingfisher for a pint?”

“I’d like that”. She smiled at me; “Okay, I’m going to leave you to rest now”.

“I just need half an hour with my head down on my pillow; after that I’ll come down and help you and Mum with supper, or do whatever you like”.

“Alright, then, sleepyhead”, she said with a mischievous grin; “See you in a bit”.

  • * * * * *

My brother and his family arrived just before six; we were sitting in the living room again when we heard the sound of the car pulling up to the front of the house. My mother went out to greet them, and a moment later we all stood up as they entered the room. Rick had let his hair grow a little since the last time I had seen him; it was beginning to turn grey, and his face seemed pale and thin, but he gave me a warm smile as he shook my hand; “Welcome home”, he said.

“Thanks; it’s good to see you”.

I turned to greet his family. His wife Alyson was petite, with dark hair and a pleasant Scottish accent, dressed quietly in jeans and a sweater; she worked as a researcher for a wildlife conservation unit in Oxford. They had brought their three children with them; Eric was sixteen, Sarah fourteen, and Anna eleven. None of the children knew me well; they had never visited us in Canada, and even on our last trip to England we had not seen very much of them. Eric was tall and thin like his father, while the girls tended to take after Alyson.

My mother and Becca moved some extra chairs into the semi-circle around the hearth, and my father handed drinks around. When we were all sitting down my mother glanced at me with a smile; “Tom’s got some lovely photographs of Emma”, she said.

So my pictures made the rounds again. Anna, glancing at one that had been taken at the old Reimer farm a couple of weeks ago, said, “I didn’t know she rode horses”.

“She’s been riding since she was a little girl”, I replied.

“Was this taken at a riding school?”

“No, it’s the old farm where Emma’s grandpa grew up. We still have relatives out there”.

“So this is one of their horses she’s riding?”

“Yes”.

Sarah spoke in a quiet voice; “How old is she now?”

“She turned seventeen in December”.

“Is she doing A-levels or something?”

“She’ll be finishing Grade Twelve in June, which is like getting A-levels where we live”.

“Will she be going to uni?”

“Yes”.

“What does she want to do?”

“She wants to be a nurse”.

“What else does she like to do?” Anna asked.

“She likes outdoor things – hiking and canoeing and cross-country skiing. She reads a lot too, and she plays guitar”.

My brother gave me a wry grin; “Chip off the old block”.

Alyson glanced at her son; “Eric started to play guitar a couple of years ago”.

“I’m not very good yet”, Eric replied with a shrug of his shoulders.

“Uncle Tom’s been playing since he was a teenager”, said Rick; “I expect he’s got a guitar hiding around here somewhere”.

“Actually, no”, I replied; “I’m only here for a week, so I left it behind”.

“You surprise me, bro – I thought you were inseparable from that thing!”

“I must admit I don’t often part with it, but it seemed easier not to bring it this time”.

“Do you and Emma play the same kind of music?” asked Sarah.

“Some, but she’s got likes and dislikes of her own too”.

“I should email her; it’s weird that she’s my cousin and I hardly know her”.

“She’d like that; I’ll give you her email address”.

My mother got to her feet; “Well, the food’s almost ready, so Becca and I will go and put it on the table”.

  • * * * * *

After supper my brother surprised me by suggesting that we take a walk in the garden together. The evening sun was close to the horizon; the sky had cleared and the temperature was dropping. We skirted the flowerbeds in silence; at the bottom of the garden Rick glanced at me and said, “So you’re really thinking of moving back, then?”

“I am”.

“Not thinking of going into the Law at long last, though?” I saw the mischievous grin on his face.

“No, I’ll leave that to you. How’s it going, by the way?”

“Very well. We’ve got about twenty-five people now, partners and solicitors and so on, and we’ve started to build a rather good name for ourselves nationally”.

“You must be squeezed tight in that office”.

“We actually bought the place next door a couple of years ago so that we could expand, but we really need to move out of the city centre. We could lease a much more functional property down at the Oxford business park, but of course the old man won’t hear of it”.

“I thought Dad was retired?”

“Yes, but until a few months ago he was still coming in two or three times a week; he was constantly interfering with the day-to-day running of the place, not to mention long-term decision-making. We’ve had several opportunities to merge with national firms – which would have been really good for our business – but in his mind Masefield and Marlowe is still an old Oxford chamber and he wants to keep it that way”.

“Does he actually have a say in the matter, though? Surely, if he’s retired…?”

“There are ten partners; all he needs to be able to do is influence six, and of course the majority of them go back to his time. If he wants to make an issue of something it’s not hard for him to get his own way”.

“That must be frustrating”.

“You could say that”.

“I suppose Jack Marlowe’s retired now too?”

“He is, and he’s a lot better at it than the old man; I honestly believe there are days when Dad thinks I haven’t got a clue”.

“He has an enduring habit of trying to control our lives”.

My brother gave a short laugh; “Well put! We’ve got that much in common, haven’t we?”

“I’m afraid so”.

We ambled along in silence for a moment in the fading light, our hands in our pockets, and then he said, “If you move back here we’ll have to invite you over to the house for a meal some time”.

“That would be nice. How long is it now that you’ve been in the new place?”

“A couple of years”.

“I vaguely remember hearing about it after the fact, but of course I was a little preoccupied at the time”.

“I know”.

“I remember last time we were here you were having renovations done on your old place so you could sell it and make some money on it”.

“God, yes! That was a bit of a nightmare, but eventually we got it done. We’ve got a nice property now out at Cumnor Hill: newish house, six bedrooms and a couple of reception rooms, big garden, lots of trees. Good neighbourhood, too”.

“Pretty swanky out there, as I recall”.

He shrugged; “I suppose so. You’ve got to have money to live there but it’s comfortable and the children like it, and I’m not worried about crime or gangs or drugs or student parties or anything like that”.

“I’ll look forward to seeing it”.

He was quiet for a moment as we skirted a line of rose bushes, and then he said, “So what’s made you think of coming back after all these years? I always got the impression you saw the move to Meadowvale as permanent?”

“I did”.

“What’s changed?”

“I’d like have another try at making things right with Dad while I still can”.

He looked at me incredulously; “You want to make up with him? The old man’s not the reconciling sort, you know”.

“I know. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that if there’s even the slightest chance I want to give it a try”.

“You’re serious about this?”

“I am”.

He shook his head in disbelief; “Well, that’s put me in my place. I was sure you were thinking about the will”.

I was astonished; “The will?”

“Yes; Dad’s got a considerable sum of money stashed away, you know”.

“I assumed he’d leave everything to Mum”.

“I’m sure most of it will go to her, but I won’t be surprised if there’s a smaller amount for each of us, too”.

“I can honestly say I hadn’t even thought of that; until you mentioned it, it never even occurred to me”.

“No, I believe you”, he said apologetically, “and now that we’re talking about it I can’t for the life of me imagine how I could have thought such a thing”. He glanced at me with a sheepish grin; “Sorry, bro – I spend far too much time with millionaires and lawyers. Everyone I know thinks money’s what makes the world go around – the more of it the better”.

“Well, I’ve always known that’s the way Dad thinks, so I can’t really hold it against you”.

“But I should have remembered that you don’t think like that; you’re the least worldly person I know”. He laughed softly again. “I think you’re a romantic dreamer, of course; you always have been, but greedy you’re not”.

“Well, I was lucky that my romantic dreams came true – at least for a while”.

He gave me a sideways glance, his face suddenly serious; “I’m really sorry about Kelly”. He shook his head again; “I know I should have written or called or something, but to tell you the honest truth I never know what to say in that sort of situation. What on earth does one say?”

“There’s really nothing to say”.

We strolled along in silence for a couple of minutes, listening to the sound of the birds in the treetops as the sun got close to the horizon. Eventually he spoke again; “So is there a plan?”

“A plan?”

“For fixing things with Dad”.

“Not really. Hopefully I can move back here, get a job, visit Mum and Dad and try to be as helpful as I can”.

“Is Emma looking forward to it?”

“I think so; she likes England and she wants to help Mum and Dad if she can. Of course, she’s going to miss Meadowvale”.

“Totally understandable. She’s a good kid, Becca tells me”.

“Yes she is. And your three? They were quiet at the table tonight”.

“They like Mum, but Dad can be a bit intimidating”.

“Of course”.

“They’re doing well though, for the most part”.

“Sarah’s growing up fast”.

“Yes she is; turning a few heads already, so I’m told, although of course she’s still only fourteen”.

“She’s got a birthday coming up soon, right?”

“She has”. He grinned at me; “I’m impressed – I’m not much for remembering those kinds of things myself, as you know”.

“Well, I was married to a girl who thought family was really important”.

“Emma must have her admirers too?”

“She had a boyfriend for a while but he broke up with her just after Christmas. She’s known him since she was eleven and they were dating for over a year, so she was pretty sad about it”.

“What happened?”

“He was a year ahead of her, and he went away to university”.

“Someone else caught his eye?”

“That’s what I hear. It’s too bad actually; his mum’s a teaching colleague of mine, Mary Stonechild, so it’s been a little awkward”.

“Small town”.

“Yeah”.

We lapsed into silence again for a few minutes, walking slowly along the path. Eventually I said, “Dad doesn’t look well, does he?”

“No. I didn’t notice it right away of course; it came on gradually”. He frowned; “The truth is, I don’t really understand all of it. I don’t understand how he could have had the disease for two or three years without it being noticed”.

“You’ve heard them talk about the difference between indolent and aggressive lymphoma?”

“Yes”.

“Indolent lymphoma isn’t especially dangerous because it doesn’t show many symptoms, but that means that it tends not to be detected until it’s well established. And of course it can turn into aggressive lymphoma, which is what’s happened to Dad”.

He frowned at me; “That’s not what Kelly had, though?”

“No, she had breast cancer. Eventually it moved into her lymph nodes and from there to the bones and the liver, but it wasn’t true lymphoma”.

“Right”.

We ambled along in silence for a couple of minutes, each of us occupied with our own thoughts. Eventually he said, “Well, shall we walk back up to the house? I think I’m ready for another drink”.

“Okay”.

  • * * * * *

I spent a quiet few days at my parents’ home, visiting with my mother and father, going for walks in the village and the old familiar countryside around, and making occasional trips into Oxford with Becca. The atmosphere when my father was awake was as tense as ever, but he usually slept each day for at least an hour in the early afternoon, and then my mother and I had some long, quiet conversations. In the middle of the week Becca drove me to Cowley for a morning interview, and afterwards we went out for lunch at a nearby pub.

My father went into the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford on Tuesday for his third chemo injection. As I expected he was fine on Wednesday, but the next day he began to feel seriously nauseous and by the middle of the day he was keeping to his room. My mother spent a lot of time with him, but when I asked her if there was anything I could do, she shook her head and said, “He doesn’t like to be seen like this, Tom”.

“I understand”.

  • * * * * *

On the Friday afternoon I had my interview at Gypsy Lane School in Headington. The head teacher, Siobhan Macnamara, was a dark-haired Irishwoman, a little older than me; she was brisk and businesslike, and in her questions she wasted no time in getting to the point. I saw the head of English, Kathy MacFarlane, smiling furtively at a couple of her head teacher’s comments; she herself took the lead when it came to specific questions about my teaching skills and experience, and I could tell she had read my resumé carefully and been impressed with it. The third person in the room was one of the school governors, but he took very little part in the interview and seemed to be there mainly to listen. I left at the end of the afternoon with a sense that things had gone well and that there was a good possibility I might be successful.

  • * * * * *

My mother had invited the whole family to dinner again on Saturday night; I had spent the afternoon in Oxford with Becca, and it was already about five-thirty by the time we arrived at my parents’ place. Rick and Alyson and their children got there about half an hour later; it had been a working Saturday for my brother, and he was still wearing a dark suit and maroon tie when they came into the living room.

My father was getting over his nausea by now but he was still looking tired and pale. Nevertheless, he insisted on getting up and pouring drinks for everyone; Alyson accepted a glass of sherry from him and then took her seat beside me on the chesterfield. “How did your interviews go?” she asked.

“Alright, I think”.

“I hear you were back on familiar ground yesterday?”

“Yeah; there’ve been a few changes since the last time I was there”.

“How soon will you hear anything?”

“A couple of weeks”.

“Any sense of which way things might go?”

“I thought both interviews went quite well, but of course I’m unfamiliar with the protocol here so I can’t know for sure”.

“Did it feel different, being back in English schools?”

“Well, it’s the Easter holidays so I didn’t actually get to see either school in action. They’re definitely bigger than I’m used to; our school in Meadowvale has about six hundred students, and the one in Headington has fifteen hundred. I know the school culture’s going to be very different, and so is the curriculum; I have to admit that I find that a little daunting”.

“You can’t let them know that, though”, my father said. “They’ll read it as a sign of weakness. You can’t appear to be weak or they’ll take advantage of it”.

“Who are ‘they’, Dad?”

“Your pupils, of course”.

I shrugged. “I’ve never viewed teaching as a battleground”.

“You might find things a bit different here”.

“Of course; I’m sure the learning curve will be steep”. I glanced at my brother, who was sitting across from us in a wing chair, nursing a glass of scotch. “You were obviously working today”.

“Yes – I’ve got a client with a very important trial coming up in the next couple of weeks. We’re burning the midnight oil getting ready for it”.

“A criminal trial?”

He shook his head. “Commercial”, he replied; “There’s rather a lot of money involved”.

“Are you working on this alone?”

“God, no!” he exclaimed; “There are about five of us on the team. The files already fill dozens of boxes”.

“Do you have to read them all?”

“If I’m going to do a good job for my client”.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Eric shaking his head a couple of times, his eyes on the ground. He had refused my mother’s offer of a cup of tea, and was sitting in the corner of the room, obviously rather bored with the proceedings. Sarah was sitting beside him on a hard-backed chair, and I could tell by the expression on her face that she was waiting to catch my eye. I smiled at her; “How are you doing?”

“I’m alright. I emailed Emma”.

“That’s what I hear”.

“She’s read Harry Potter”.

“She has; she’s a big fan. You are too, are you?”

“I’ve read all of them; they’re fantastic!”

“I think there’s another one coming out soon, isn’t there?”

“In July; I can’t wait!”

“Are these those boy wizard books?” my brother asked with a smile.

“‘Boy wizard books!’” Becca quoted with a bemused grin; “Is it possible my brother hasn’t quite registered the biggest phenomenon in recent publishing history?”

“Are they really that big? I don’t know anything about them other than the name and that there are wizards and witches in them”.

“They’re well on their way to becoming the best-selling fiction series of all time”, I replied. “Kids have been lining up in bookstores for hours when new titles are released”.

“And there are films”, Becca added; “Highly successful films, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars”.

“Money, Dad”, Eric said sarcastically; “Surely you’ve noticed that?”

Rick glanced at him darkly; “Watch your tongue, Eric Masefield”.

Eric tossed his head dismissively and looked away again. Sarah glanced at him for a moment with a little frown, and then turned back to me. “Anyway”, she said, “I’ve emailed back and forth a couple of times with Emma; she seems really nice”.

“I knew she’d be glad to hear from you”.

“We mainly talked about books”.

“Do you like Ursula Le Guin too?”

“I love A Wizard of Earthsea; it’s my favourite book!”

“Oh yeah? It was one of my favourites when I was a teenager, too. I read it when it first came out; I think I was ten or eleven at the time”.

“Have you read her other books?”

“I think I’ve got almost every book she’s written; I think she’s brilliant. Emma really likes her, too”.

“That’s what she told me. But she said she’s reading George Eliot right now; I don’t really know anything about him”.

“‘Her’, actually; ‘George Eliot’ was her pen name, but her real name was Mary Ann Evans. Her stuff is really different from Ursula Le Guin’s”.

“Emma says her books are fantastic”.

Alyson smiled at her daughter; “You’ve found a kindred spirit”.

“I’m looking forward to meeting her; she’s really interesting to talk to”.

  • * * * * *

The following morning, as Becca and I were finishing our coffee at a crowded café outside the departure lounge at Terminal Three, I said, “Rick seems to have inherited Dad’s work ethic in a big way”.

“Well, I can’t really talk there, can I? I’m just as much of a workaholic as either of them”.

“Can I ask you a personal question?”

“You know you can”.

“Do you ever see Mike?”

Immediately she looked away. Mike Carey was a paramedic; he had been her boyfriend for about eighteen months and they had lived together for almost a year, but he had ended their relationship just after Christmas. The previous summer, while they were still together, they had come to Meadowvale to visit Emma and me; while they were with us we had taken them camping for a week in Jasper National Park.

“I know where he’s staying”, she said, “and we know each other’s phone numbers, but we haven’t really talked since we broke up”.

“Sorry; it’s not really my business”.

“Don’t be silly; you and I don’t keep things from each other. To be honest I’m still finding it hard; the hardest part is knowing it was my fault”.

“You can’t be sure of that”.

“Tommy, spare me the sympathy; you and I have talked about this enough times to know I’m the one who’s got to learn to get my compulsive work habits under control. He was tired of being short-changed when it came to time together, and who can blame him? I certainly can’t”. She shook her head slowly; “It’s just that I don’t seem to be able to do anything about it”.

“You’re good at what you do, and you enjoy it”.

“Owen’s good at what he does, and he enjoys it, but he’s not driven like I am”.

“You’re still in touch with some of your high school friends, right?”

“I swim once a week with Stevie Fredericks, and we always have coffee afterwards”.

“You don’t do gymnastics any more, though?”

She laughed; “Not for a long time!”

“You two did pretty well in gymnastics competitions in high school”.

“We did”. She smiled at me; “Those were good days”.

“Kelly and I had our struggles with being over-busy, you know”.

“She told me that. I found it hard to believe; you always seemed so relaxed when I was with you”.

“That was because you almost always came in the summer time. During the school year it was a lot harder”.

“I know teachers are busy”.

“Yeah, and there were other things too. Kelly was working full time, and we were running the Sunday night group a couple of times a month, and attending a midweek study group at the church, and Ellie and Darren and I were driving down to Saskatoon regularly to play gigs. For a couple of years there we were running so fast that we barely connected with each other from morning to night”.

“But you worked it out?”

“Eventually – I gave up gigging with Ellie and Darren, and Kelly went down to half-time at the special care home. It wasn’t easy though; she loved her work and I loved my music. We had to decide what came first, but it wasn’t black and white; that’s what makes it hard, sometimes”.

She frowned thoughtfully, opened her mouth to speak, and then closed it again.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Are you telling me that you and Kelly were really in trouble for a while?”

“I’m telling you that we were an ordinary married couple and we had our struggles. Fortunately for us we were able to work through them; if we hadn’t, then yes, we could have been in trouble”.

She drank the rest of her coffee in silence, put the cup down on the saucer and said, “I suppose I always knew you were an ordinary married couple, but…”

“You enjoyed putting us on a pedestal”.

“I suppose I did. Life was pretty chaotic for me here, and coming to Meadowvale was always such a wonderfully restful thing. And of course, Kelly was always so good to me”.

“I have to say, our struggles were more my fault than hers”.

“Why are you telling me this, Tommy?”

“Because I don’t believe in all those neat personality classifications between Type A and Type B people. I think people are people; we all struggle with getting our priorities right and we all fail sometimes”.

She smiled sheepishly at me. “That’s your gentle brotherly way of telling me to quit blaming my Masefield genes and work harder at getting my life under control?”

“No, that’s my gentle brotherly way of saying we’re in this together”. I glanced at my watch. “And speaking of time…”.

“It’s that time, is it?”

“I’m afraid so”.

We got to our feet reluctantly; “Give my love to Owen and Lorraine”, I said.

“I will – and you give Emma love and hugs from me. Tell her I’ll see her in a couple of months”.

“I will. You don’t have to stand and watch me go through security, you know?”

She grinned at me mischievously; “But if I leave and then they turn you away at the gate, who’s going to drive you back to Northwood?”

“Well, I guess you have a point there, Doctor Masefield; they might even arrest me and throw me in jail”.

“Exactly! So you’ll let me stand and watch while you go through the line, then?”

“Oh well – if you insist”.

“I do”, she said defiantly, “So let’s go down to the gate, shall we?”

Link to Chapter 4

‘A Time to Mend’, Chapter Two

Link back to Chapter One

When I finished ‘Meadowvale’ it turned out that there were some inconsistencies with ‘A Time to Mend’ (which I wrote first, over ten years ago, even though chronologically it comes after ‘Meadowvale’). So – I’m having another go at ‘A Time to Mend’ to bring it back in sync with ‘Meadowvale’. Here’s the second chapter.

 

Will Reimer had been my first principal at Meadowvale High School; he and his wife Sally had welcomed me to the community, found a place for me to stay and helped me furnish it, driven me around until I bought a car, and invited me over to their house for countless suppers and backyard barbecues. It was at one of those suppers, on my first Thanksgiving weekend in Canada, that I had met their three children. The oldest, Joe, had recently returned to Meadowvale to practice as a vet; Kelly was working as a nurse in Jasper, and Krista was studying for her Master’s degree in Edmonton in hopes of becoming a wildlife biologist.

Two years later on Thanksgiving weekend Kelly and I were married; by then Joe and his wife Ellie were good friends of mine, and over the years I had also become close to Krista, who eventually married Steve Janzen. Between us we had five children who Steve collectively dubbed ‘The Pack’. Jake and Jenna, Joe and Ellie’s kids, had literally grown up around the corner from Emma, and they were in and out of each other’s houses all the time. Mike and Rachel, the children of Steve and Krista, lived a little further away in Saskatoon but we still saw a lot of them, and during the summers the five of them were often together.

I had been playing traditional English folk music since my teens; Ellie Reimer was a bluegrass fiddler and we gradually realized that the two genres were very compatible. Over the years we had learned many songs from each other, and for a while we had been playing regular gigs together down in the city, along with a younger teacher from my school, Darren Peterson, who was an excellent banjo and mandolin player. We had slowed down eventually, both Ellie and I being busy with many other things in our lives, but we still played together from time to time. Ellie’s older sister Karla was married to one of my other close friends in Meadowvale, Glenn Pickering; he was born in our little town and had been practicing Law there since about 1978.

Not long before Kelly died, her cousin Brenda Nikkel had opened the Meadowvale Beanery on the main street. It was a small café that served home-made soups and sandwiches and fair trade coffee, and it had become quite popular with some of the younger people in town, although most of the old-timers were still loyal to the Travellers’ or the Co-op Deli. The Beanery had wooden tables and chairs, shelves with bags of flavoured coffee and tea for sale, and paintings of old grain elevators on the walls.

I met Joe and Ellie there for coffee at about four o’clock on Sunday afternoon, the day after I talked to my mother; I had told them briefly about my father’s cancer after church that morning. Brenda was working by herself that afternoon but when she saw us come into the café she came out from behind the counter and gave me a warm hug. She and Kelly had been very close, and although she had been through a few troubles of her own in the past ten years, including the breakup of her marriage, I knew she had taken it on herself to keep a special eye on Emma and me. Emma worked the occasional shift at the Beanery, as well as volunteering at the Meadowvale Special Care Home where Kelly had worked as a geriatric nurse.

In the gene pool of the Reimer family all three of Will and Sally’s children had inherited their mother’s blond hair, but Joe was the only one who was as tall as she was. He had often joked with Kelly and me that having stairs in the house must have been very useful for us when it came to kissing; I stand six feet four inches tall, and Kelly was a full foot shorter than me. Joe was a little under six feet himself, which was taller than both his parents; he was almost two years my senior, and over the past few years he had been losing his hair at a prodigious rate. Ellie was a little shorter than her husband, with thick black hair streaked here and there with grey.

We picked up our coffee and went over to an empty table by a window in the corner, stopping a couple of times on the way to say hello to people we knew. Joe and Ellie took their seats across from me; Joe cupped his hands around his mug and looked at me expectantly, while Ellie added a little sugar to her coffee, stirred it with a spoon and said, “Did you talk to Becca again?”

“Yeah, I called her after church”.

“Was she at your mom and dad’s?”

“No, she was home. She’d been out briefly in the morning but she said it was obvious that dad didn’t really want company, so she came home after about an hour”.

“Is he having a hard time accepting the situation?”

“That’s what she says”.

Joe sat back in his chair, stretching his long legs out under the table. “You were talking about ‘indolent’ and ‘aggressive’ lymphoma”, he said, making air quotes with his fingers; “I’m not really familiar with those terms”.

“Neither was I until Becca explained them to me. She says indolent lymphoma tends to go unnoticed for a long time, because it doesn’t usually present obvious symptoms. But that means it can spread quietly without attracting attention to itself. That seems to be what’s happened to Dad”.

“And now it’s turned into the aggressive kind?”

“Yeah, and it’s had plenty of time to get established”.

“So it’s widespread?”

“Yes, and it’s already moved into the bone marrow”.

“That doesn’t sound good”.

“No”.

“How are you doing, Tom?” Ellie asked softly.

I shrugged; “I feel sorry for him, but it’s complicated, as you know”.

“No kidding”.

“It’s strange; I guess I tend to go through my daily routines without thinking about him very much. I know he’s out there; he’s just not really a part of my life”.

“You’ve never really had a lot in common with him”, said Joe.

“No, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we couldn’t ever have been close. When I first came here I’d never have thought of being friends with people like old Charlie Blackie and Wilf and Mabel Collins, or even Mike Robinson or John Janzen. I would have just assumed I wouldn’t have enough in common with them, but if people are willing to step out of their comfort zones and take an interest in the lives of others you’ve got something to work with, haven’t you? But Dad’s never been willing to do that”.

“Have you? The law isn’t exactly your favourite subject”.

I grinned at him; “I’ll have you know, Joe Reimer, that Glenn Pickering and I have had some very interesting conversations about the law over the years!”

He laughed; “I guess so. Glenn’s more of a meat and potatoes lawyer, though”.

“True, and Dad’s been doing corporate law for as long as I can remember. But if he’d just meet me half way…” I shook my head; “It wouldn’t even have to be half way. I sometimes feel as if I’ve gone ninety percent of the way toward him, but that last ten percent isn’t in my power; he needs to make a move. And when he didn’t even come over for Kelly’s funeral…”

Ellie reached across and put her hand on mine; “I remember”, she said gently.

I looked down at my coffee. “Mum gave us a card; she’d signed it ‘Mum and Dad’. I’m sure he never even looked at it”.

“You were angry”, said Joe.

I shrugged my shoulders. “I guess I was at the time, but eventually I realized I’d allowed myself to be lured into thinking that just once he might surprise me. That was my mistake. Whatever this strange relationship is that we have, it always seems to work better if I expect nothing from him, and most of the time that’s where I’m at. That’s why I said I tend to go through my life without thinking of him very much”.

“That might be about to change”.

“I know”.

“What about your mom; how’s she doing?”

“I’m concerned about her. I want her to take advantage of any help she can get, even with practical things like cleaning and meals and all that. You know what it’s like; as the disease progresses it’s going to take more and more time and energy on her part, and she doesn’t have a network like I had here with Kelly. But Dad really likes his privacy; I don’t think he’d take kindly to having strangers in the house to help out”.

“What about his extended family?”

I shook my head; “They’ve never been close. Most of them are in London except for my cousin Ann; she’s living in Oxford now. And the only family member Mum’s got close is Auntie Brenda, and she’s older than Mum”.

“And a widow herself”, Joe added.

“Yes”.

“I don’t remember your mom having many friends”.

“There’ve been a couple of Northwood teachers she’s been close to over the years but her closest friend is the one who lives furthest away – Pat Schuster in Vienna. They talk on the phone all the time”.

“I expect your mom will lean on you a lot, even though you’re so far away”.

“Yes”.

“Are you okay with that?”

“Yes”.

“Kind of hard to be reminded of it all though”.

“Yeah, but it’s not as if I ever forget, Joe”.

“No”, he said, and I saw the understanding in his eyes.

“Are you going to go for a visit?” Ellie asked.

“Yes, during spring break, and then we’ll probably go in the summer for a substantial period of time, although I’ll need to be helping Emma get moved to Saskatoon, too”.

“Don’t worry about that”, said Joe; “If she’s got stuff to move down, we can help her with it”.

I nodded; “Thanks”.

He gave me a little frown; “Distance is going to make this hard for you”.

“Yeah – I’m not sure how much Dad would be willing to let me be a part of everything, but it would be a lot easier to be helpful to Mum if I was closer”. I shrugged; “I made my choices, I guess, and for the most part they’ve turned out pretty well”.

Ellie nodded; “That’s for sure”.

Joe looked at me in silence for a moment and then said, “If I was in your shoes, I think I’d be wishing there was some way I could move closer for a while”.

I shook my head; “Even if Dad and I got along better I don’t think that would be possible. Em’s starting university in the Fall, and we’ve got so many ties over here. This is our home and I can’t see that changing”.

“What do you think are your chances of bringing some healing into your relationship with your dad before he dies?”

“Em was asking me the same thing yesterday morning; I told her I don’t know, but I suppose I should be trying”. I took another sip of my coffee, cupped my hands around the mug and said, “I know Kelly would have said I should keep trying and not give up; it really bothered her over the years that there was still this rift between Dad and me”.

“I know”.

I stared out through the window in the dying light of the winter afternoon, watching the cars and trucks drive by on the icy street. After a moment I shook my head and said, “All I can do is go over there, I guess, and make myself available for conversation if he wants to have it. But I’m not hopeful”.

 

Becca and I emailed back and forth all through the following week, and I talked with my mother on the phone a couple of times. There was no change in my father’s situation; he was still waiting to go in for more tests, and meanwhile my mother was encouraging him to get as much rest as he could. “Not that he needs much persuading”, she said to me; “He’s tired all the time. He’s never been one for taking naps, but now he can’t keep awake after lunch, and once he’s asleep he’s out for a couple of hours”.

I knew that Emma had been talking to my mother too, and to Becca; she and Becca had been close for many years. She didn’t say much to me about my father’s illness, and I knew why; this time two years ago it had been Kelly who was fighting for her life with cancer, and the wound was still as raw for Emma as it was for me. The two of us talked openly about most things but we both knew instinctively when to back off and respect each other’s privacy, and I knew that this was one of those times. She was always good at making me cups of tea and doing little acts of kindness for me, but I noticed now that she was giving me more frequent hugs, and every now and again I saw her looking at me with an expression of concern on her face.

“I’m okay, Em”, I said to her one evening as we were sitting by the open fireplace in the living room drinking our late-night hot chocolate; “You don’t have to worry about me”.

“I do worry about you though”, she replied softly.

“Why?”

She shrugged; “You know why”.

“Maybe I do and maybe I don’t”.

“Well, I know it’s complicated, but he’s your dad”.

“Yes he is”.

She looked down for a moment, stirring her hot chocolate in the mug. “And then there’s Mom”, she whispered.

“Yes”.

She stared into the fire; “I still miss her so much…”

“I know”.

“And then I think about you and her, and how much you loved each other, and I know it’s got to be hard for you watching your dad go through cancer”.

“Joe and I had this conversation a few days ago. It’s not like I ever forget, Em”.

“I understand”.

“Thanks for looking out for me, though”.

She looked at me for a moment without saying anything, and then she nodded slowly; “Thanks for looking out for me, too”, she said.

 

On the Friday night Emma went out to spend some time with a couple of friends. At around eight o’clock Joe called to see if I wanted company, and since I never did schoolwork on Friday nights I was happy to make a pot of tea and sit down at the kitchen table with him for an hour of quiet conversation.

“Have you talked to your dad yet?” he said.

“Not at any length. We’ve said hello to each other and asked after each other’s health, but that’s about it”.

He laughed softly; “You asked after each other’s health?”

“I said, ‘How are you doing?’ and he said, ‘As well as can be expected’”.

“You’re a communicative pair, aren’t you?”

“I know; that’s always been part of the problem. We’ve basically got two ways of communicating: we argue, or we just don’t talk”.

“That’s not entirely true; I’ve heard you speak civilly to each other”.

“When we’re talking about nothing, yes”.

“Maybe talking about nothing is a start”.

I shrugged; “Maybe”.

“So do you think you can get past that?”

“I’m not optimistic. He won’t even stay on the phone with me when I call; what chance do I have of getting a real conversation going?”

“It’ll take time, that’s for sure. Probably longer than a week”.

I glanced across the table at him; “Where are you going with that?”

“Like I said Sunday afternoon, if I was in your shoes I’d be thinking seriously about going back for a longer period of time”.

I shook my head slowly; “I’ve thought about it a bit, but there are just too many complications”.

“Tell me about them”.

“Well, let’s start with work; I’d have to leave my job here and try to get a teaching position in England”.

“Temporarily – for a year or two”.

“But I don’t think I could just take a two-year leave of absence; I’d have to resign, and there’d be no guarantee that I would ever get back here afterwards”.

“But you know the school board pretty well, and you and Don are good friends; I’m sure you could persuade them to offer your job on a two-year contract to someone”.

“That would be a very unusual thing for them to do”.

“Perhaps, but you’ve given them twenty years of loyal service; don’t you think they might be willing to go the extra mile for you?”

“I don’t know and I’d hate to ask, because I know how hard it would be for them to get a temporary replacement up here for me. And then of course there’s Em; she’s already got her application in to Saskatoon for the Fall”.

“There are universities in England, or so I’ve heard”.

“Yes, but the deadline’s already passed for overseas applications for the Fall term; all the paperwork has to be in by November”.

“You’ve looked into this?”

“I have”.

“So you have been thinking about it?”

“Of course I’ve been thinking about it; do you think I want my dad to die with this rift still between us?”

He shook his head; “I know you don’t”.

“But how would Em feel about it? Can I even assume she’d want to come with me? She’s been looking forward to going down to Saskatoon and sharing an apartment with Jake. And most of her family and friends are here”.

“She loves England, though”.

“That’s true; the last time we were there she really enjoyed it. But that was six years ago, and since then she’s lost her mum. A lot of things have changed for her; I think if I decided to go, she might just choose to stay here and go to Saskatoon. And I think it would be hard for her to have me move so far away”.

“And for you, too”.

I nodded; “Yes”.

He took a sip of his tea, put the mug down on the kitchen table again and sat back in his chair. “Look, don’t get me wrong; the last thing I want is for you to be thousands of miles away. You’re my brother-in-law and my closest friend, not to mention the godfather of my kids”.

I shook my head. “I don’t want to leave, Joe; this is our home”.

“I know it would be hard – for you and us”.

“Excruciatingly hard”.

“But there would be benefits too”.

“Strangely enough, I can’t quite manage to persuade myself that being closer to my dad would be a benefit!”

He laughed softly. “Well, that’s part of it, but I wasn’t only thinking of that. What about you and Becca? You’ve been close since she was a baby and you really love each other”.

“We do”.

“And Owen’s your closest friend; you’d enjoy being able to spend more time with him”.

“I don’t know about ‘closest friend’; I think the person sitting across this table from me right now might have a claim on that title too”.

He smiled; “Alright then – one of your closest friends! I know you’d love to be able to play music with him and spend more time together”.

“Yes, I would, but…”

“I know – it’s complicated; I think we’ve established that. But what’s the bottom line, Tom? You know reconciliation is important; you’ve already said that”.

“I’m not denying it”.

“So I guess you have to ask yourself just how important it is for you”.

I smiled at him. “You’re being unusually direct tonight, Joe Reimer”.

“I guess I am; sorry if I’m going too far”.

I shook my head. “No”, I said softly, “actually, at the moment you’re reminding me very strongly of your sister”.

“A good memory, then?”

“A good memory. And she was usually right”.

“Yes, she was”, he agreed.

 

After supper on Saturday I went out for a rare evening walk. When I got back to the house at about nine o’clock Emma was curled up in her chair beside the fireplace reading a book; the curtains were closed against the darkness of the night, and a standing lamp in the corner threw a soft light into the living room. She looked up and smiled at me. “How was your walk?” she asked.

“Pretty good”. I took my seat across from her; “What are you reading tonight?”

“Middlemarch; I really like it so far”.

“I like it too”.

“I saw a few others by George Eliot on your shelf; are they all this good?”

“Some of them; I really like Daniel Deronda and Felix Holt the Radical”.

“I’ll have to read them. I think this one’s going to keep me going for a while, though”.

“They’re not short”.

“That’s for sure”.

I hesitated, looked across at her and said, “Listen, there’s something I need to talk to you about”.

“What is it?”

“If I was to move to England for a couple of years, what would you do? Would you stay here and go to university in Saskatoon, or would you come over to England with me?”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes”.

“Is this about trying to make things better with Grandpa?”

“Yes”.

“What’s got you thinking about this?”

“Joe brought it up a few days ago. It’s been on my mind on and off ever since, and I’ve tried to pray about it too”.

She got up, went out to the kitchen, poured herself a glass of water, and then came back into the living room and sat down again. “That would be pretty drastic; you’d resign from your job here, would you?”

“Or talk to Don and the school board about a leave of absence”.

“Would they do that for you?”

“I have no idea; they’ve never done it for anyone else except for maternity leaves, and it’s often a real pain to try to get people in here for short-term positions”.

“Right”.

“Off the top of your head, what do you think?”

She grinned; “Free board and lodging in England for two years while you slave away as a teacher and I get to be a tourist? I’d be okay with that!”

“Seriously, now”.

She nodded; “Okay – but I was being at least partly serious, Dad”.

“So you’re not completely opposed to the idea?”

“Of course not; I totally understand where you’re coming from, and if you wanted to go over there and you were willing to take me with you, there would definitely be things I’d enjoy about it. I like England and I’d love the chance to live there for an extended period of time. And now’s probably as good a time as any to think about it; I’m finishing Grade Twelve but I haven’t started university yet”.

“There are universities in England, too”.

She raised an eyebrow; “Are we talking longer than two years now?”

I shrugged; “I wouldn’t think so, but when it comes to cancer diagnoses it’s hard to predict just how long things will take”.

“I understand. And there’s that part of it too; I’d like to spend some time with Grandma and Grandpa. They’re going to need some help; maybe I can be part of that”.

“I’m sure they’d appreciate that”.

“And then there’s Russell”.

“Russell?”

She nodded; “I wouldn’t mind getting away for a while, Dad”.

“You might not feel that so strongly six months from now”.

“Maybe not, but at the moment…”

“I understand. So – what do you think?”

She frowned thoughtfully. “I’d have to think some more about it. I’d love to say yes right away, but there are other things I need to consider”.

“I know you’ve got plans for Saskatoon”.

“Yeah”.

“You and Jake and Jenna have been talking about this for a long time”.

“Yes we have”. She smiled at me. “So how would this work? Would you try to get a job in Oxford?”

“Or somewhere close. It wouldn’t be easy to move there; it’s one of the more expensive parts of England”.

“Would you sell our house?”

“That wouldn’t be my first choice; I’d prefer to rent it out and use the money to help with renting a place in the U.K.”.

For a few minutes she said nothing; she stared off again into the fireplace and I could see that she was thinking hard. Eventually she said, “I need some time, Dad”.

“Okay”.

“I think I’m going to go to bed now if that’s okay?”

I looked at my watch; “A little early for you, isn’t it?”

She got to her feet, gave me a quick smile, and slipped off down the hall; after a moment I heard the click of her bedroom door closing behind her.

I understood immediately what was going on; some people deal with surprises by running for company, but Emma had always preferred to run for solitude. I knew I had to give her some space to work things out for herself. I sat quietly for a few minutes, then got up, picked up my guitar from the corner and began to play some quiet instrumental tunes. I knew that she would be sitting on her bed, thinking and praying, and I probably wouldn’t see her now until the next morning.

 

The next day we went to church together, stayed for a while for the coffee hour, and then excused ourselves to go home and make lunch. While we were eating she said, “Do you want to go up to the recreation area and go snowshoeing?”

“Sure; it looks like a nice afternoon out there. Shall I make a thermos of coffee to pack with us?”

“Sounds good”.

 

The sun was shining a dazzling light on the fresh snow as we drove out to Myers Lake Recreation Area, about seven miles from Meadowvale. Over the years our family had spent a lot of time there; the lake itself was a great place for waterfowl in the summer time, and there were miles of walking trails along its shores and off into the bush. Emma enjoyed cross-country skiing, and in her early teens she had really taken to snowshoeing – something I enjoyed as well.

There were no other vehicles in the tiny parking lot when we arrived. We got out of the car, and I pulled on a backpack holding a small thermos flask, a couple of mugs and some snacks to keep us going on the trail. By now it was about one-thirty in the afternoon; the sky was a clear and brilliant blue and I guessed that the temperature was probably sitting at about minus twenty. We lifted our snowshoes from the trunk of the car and bent to strap them on, and I grinned at her and said, “You lead the way”.

We stepped off the beaten trail as soon as we could, moving into the deeper snow close to the spruce and poplar trees where the snowshoes could do their work. We didn’t say much to each other; I knew that she would be focussed outward, taking in every detail of the landscape as well as keeping her eye out for birds and other wildlife. The afternoon was cold but there was no wind, and it didn’t take long for us to warm up in our down jackets and ski pants.

After about an hour we stopped at a place where a frozen creek snaked out from a stand of spruce trees into the lake. There was a picnic table partially hidden in the snow under the trees and I saw Emma make her way over to it, clearing the snow from the top with her gloved hands. She smiled at me, her face red and glowing; “Coffee time?”

“Sounds good”.

We took off our snowshoes and sat side by side on the top of the picnic table with our feet on the snow-covered bench. I took out our thermos and poured hot sweet coffee into the two plastic mugs; I handed one to her along with a granola bar, and took another bar for myself. We grinned contentedly at each other and sat in silence for a few minutes, sipping our coffee and chewing on our granola bars, our breath hanging in the cold air. I felt her lean towards me slightly until our shoulders touched.

“I think I’m ready to talk a little more now”, she said.

“Okay”

“So – assuming you decided moving to England was a good idea, you’d need to apply for jobs and then interview for them?”

“I’d have to have some sort of interview but I don’t know if it would be by phone or in person; when I came here the school board did the interview by phone. But I’m going to be over there during spring break so it might be possible to do some interviews then”.

“What do you think of your chances of getting a job?”

“I’m really not sure; I’ve got a lot of research to do”.

We were quiet for a few minutes, watching a raven soar over the trees on the other side of the creek, each of us occupied with our memories. Eventually she gave a little sigh, glanced at me again and said, “So it’s expensive in the Oxford area?”

“Yes”.

“That would be hard for us if we had to buy a car and furniture and that sort of stuff”.

“Yes, and shipping furniture would be expensive, too. I’d hate to leave all our stuff behind though; I’d like to have a few familiar things around us”.

“Me too. Could we afford this, Dad?”

“It would be tight but I think we could manage it”.

“You’d be happy to be close to Owen and Lorraine and Becca again”.

“I would”.

“I did a bit of research online about nursing training in the U.K.”.

“Ah, so that’s what you were doing in your room last night”.

“Oxford Brookes University has a pretty good three-year program”.

“Oh yeah?”

“Looks like the National Health Service pays the fees for British and E.U. citizens. I tried to find out on the website if I’d qualify, but I couldn’t find anything about that”.

“I’m guessing you’d probably need to be a resident”.

“I think so”. She gave me another sideways glance; “There’s a lot to think about”.

“There is”.

“And how about this reconciliation thing? Do you think it would work?”

“I really don’t know”.

“What did Joe say?”

“He told me he was pretty sure what Kelly would have wanted me to do”.

She nodded; “He’s right about that”.

“I know”.

“So I guess you have to decide whether you think two years is long enough for that”.

“And you have to decide whether it would be important enough to uproot yourself from your friends and family over here to come with me”.

“I’d probably be too late now to apply to a British university in time for the Fall term, wouldn’t I?”

“I think so”.

She thought for a moment and then said, “Yesterday you asked me whether I’d go with you, or stay here and go to Saskatoon”.

“Yes”.

“What do you think about the ‘staying here and going to Saskatoon’ option?”

“I suppose I’d have to be honest and say that I’d hate for that to happen”. I put my arm around her shoulders, hugged her a little closer and said, “I’d really miss you. Still – you’d have to decide what’s best for you. I think it would be more difficult for me to help you out if I was over in England; it’s that whole cost of living thing again. But I know how long you and Jake and Jenna have been planning your time in Saskatoon together; the last thing I want to do is get in the way of that, if you still feel really strongly about it”.

“I’d need to talk to them”.

“I know”.

She stared out thoughtfully over the frozen lake. “Maybe if I moved to England with you I’d be able to travel around a little in the Fall and then start university in January”.

“That’s possible”.

She turned to look at me. “How soon do you need to know?”

“Well, let me ask you something else first: would you be okay with me going, whether or not you decide to come with me?”

She nodded slowly; “I’d really miss you”, she said softly, “but I know it would be the right thing for you to do”.

I put my arm around her and drew her close, kissing the top of her head. “I’d miss you too, honey – more than I can say”.

“I love you, Dad”, she whispered.

“I love you too”.

We were quiet for a moment, and then she straightened up, cupping her hands around her coffee mug. “Can you give me a week?” she asked; “I need to think this through”.

“I can give you a week”.

“Is it okay if I talk to Jake and Jenna about it?”

“Of course – I assumed you’d want to do that. I’ll probably talk to a couple of other people about it as well”.

“Grandpa and Grandma Reimer?”

“Yes, and probably Don and Lynda too”.

She smiled; “Probably wouldn’t hurt, since he’s your principal”.

“That’s what I thought”.

She looked at me for a moment, and then spoke in a quiet voice; “Thanks”, she said.

“For what?”

“For being patient with me”. She put her hand on mine; “This isn’t easy for you”.

“No, it sure isn’t”.

She slid off the table, stretched and straightened up. “I’m getting a little cold; I think we should move on”.

“Sounds good”.

* * * * *

Link to Chapter 3