‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter Four

Link to Chapter Three

In my youth I was never a churchgoer. My father had no time for religion of any kind, and although I suspect that my mother would have liked to have gone occasionally, she would not defy my father’s will. The only exception to this was Christmas Eve, when our whole family attended the midnight service together. Apart from this annual event, my only other exposure to Christian worship before I moved to Canada was in school assemblies, which in my time customarily included the singing of a hymn, scripture reading, and prayer. These observances were conducted with varying degrees of conviction, depending on which of our teachers was the leader on any given day.

I had come to the habit of churchgoing in my years in Canada, and Kelly was the one who had led me to it. Her parents were devout Mennonite Christians, and Joe, Kelly and Krista had been raised in that tradition, but in her teens Kelly had rebelled, and had dropped out of churchgoing completely. However, at about the time we had met she had begun to search for a spiritual dimension to her life, and I had joined her in that quest. We had read and talked together about the issues, and gradually, as time went by, Christianity had come to make more and more sense to me. Kelly’s brother Joe was a strong and thoughtful Christian, and he and I had become very close friends. His words and his way of life had made a deep impression on me, building on my earlier encounters with Christian faith through my friendship with Owen.

Kelly and I had both been baptized as adults in September 1984, a month before we were married. Once Kelly returned to her childhood faith she never seemed to waiver in it, even in the last months of her life when her body was being ravaged by cancer. As for me, the sense of the reality of God was more of an occasional experience, although I had no doubt of the genuineness of Kelly’s faith. What I had definitely experienced, after her death, was the care of the members of our little church; it was only that, and the presence of my sister, which had made it possible for me to cope with the agony of bereavement. Our pastor, Dave Thiessen, had been my companion through my two years of life after Kelly, and under his guidance I had at last begun to feel that I was making some progress in my faith. As for Emma, she had been baptized a year ago at the age of sixteen, and I knew that her faith was very deep.

I was sure that if we went to church on our first Sunday in Northwood my father would have words to say about it; however, I also knew that if we were going to continue our habit of churchgoing, the only way was to start out as we meant to continue. So when we appeared at the breakfast table at about half past eight on that first Sunday morning, I decided to bring up the subject.

In the absence of company, breakfast and lunch at my parents’ home were usually eaten in the kitchen, a spacious room at the side of the house with a window looking out onto the courtyard and what had once been the stable buildings. Sunday breakfast was not a social occasion with my parents; my father usually read the ‘Sunday Times’, and my mother knew better than to interrupt him. On this particular morning I noticed that my father ate only half a slice of dry toast while scanning his newspaper. When we had finished our bacon and eggs and my mother was pouring the coffee, I cleared my throat and said “Emma and I will be leaving you for a while this morning; we’re going to church”.

My father lowered his newspaper to the table and looked at me scornfully; “Still participating in that rigmarole, are you?”

I glanced across the table at Emma; she had stopped eating her toast and was staring at him in surprise.

“It’s not a rigmarole to me, Dad” I replied. “It’s one of the ways I make sense of my life. So we’ll be heading along to church in a little while”.

He glanced at his granddaughter, looked back at me for a moment, and then shrugged his shoulders and reached for his newspaper again. “Please yourself”, he said; “Sunday dinner is at one”.

The sky that morning was a clear blue and the day was already pleasantly warm as Emma and I walked down to the village church together. I was noticing my six years away from Northwood; there was new construction all over the village, and a few of the old familiar buildings from my teenage years were gone. We passed the primary school that I had attended for one term after moving from Oxford, and the little corner newsagent’s shop where I had worked as a paperboy. We walked in silence for a few minutes, and then Emma said, “So Grandpa doesn’t believe in God?”

“No”.

“Did you go to church at all when you were a boy?”

“Only at Christmas time. Remember that I only started getting interested in Christianity when I started to date your Mom”.

“Right. So have you ever been to this church that we’re going to this morning?”

“A few times on Christmas Eve, but that’s all”.

“But you’ve never been to an ordinary Sunday service with your Mom and Dad?”

“No”.

She was quiet for a moment, and I felt her slip her hand into my arm. “And this is a Church of England church – that’s a little different from ours?”

“Yes, the service will have a written liturgy that the congregation and the pastor recite together. It’ll feel quite a lot like a Catholic service”.

“So why did you decide that we should go to this particular church today?”

“Well, it’s the village church, and I haven’t had time to find out if there’s a church like ours close at hand. But I wanted to set a pattern with your Grandpa the first Sunday we were here. If I put off going to church for a week until I could find exactly the kind of church I wanted, it would be harder to stand up for our family custom. He can be quite scornful about this sort of thing, as you’ve already seen”.

“I noticed that”.

The familiar bulk of the village church was looming ahead of us now, set in a spacious churchyard dotted here and there with old gravestones. We entered the church through a large pointed doorway; inside, the floor was polished stone, the walls were high and covered in off-white plaster, and there were thick pillars supporting the upper walls on either side of the nave. The altar seemed far distant, standing under the stained glass windows at the eastern end of the building.

The dark wooden pews were beginning to fill up, although I could see that there were many empty spaces. An elderly lady with a big smile greeted us and handed us our books, and we took our seats near the back, just across from the porch where we had come in. I looked around, noticing that most of the people assembling for the service were dressed more formally than we were; Emma was in jeans, and I was wearing cargo pants and a summer shirt.

Emma was looking up at the latticework on the ceiling. “This is amazing, Dad!” she whispered. “How old is this church?”

“If I remember correctly, a lot of it is fifteenth century”, I replied. “Most of the woodwork is Victorian, though”.

A few minutes later the service began. Some of the rituals were indeed strange to us, and occasionally we had to watch our neighbours for our cue as to what was expected of us. However, the minister preached a fine, practical sermon with plenty of food for thought, and I quickly found myself warming to him.  After the service ended there was a moment of quiet while people knelt for prayer; our church at home had a similar custom, and Emma always bowed her head for a long time at this point; I suspected that she was talking to God about Kelly, although I had never asked her about it. When the organist started to play the postlude, people began to rise gratefully from their knees and greet their friends and neighbours. A few people smiled at us, and at the door the minister shook our hands and greeted us cheerfully.

Outside, the sun was now riding high in the sky, and people were out enjoying it. Couples were walking with their children, and the road beside us was busy with cars and bicycles. I took a detour on the way back to my parents’ home so that we could walk beside the river; several boats were moving on the water, and I pointed out to Emma 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. “Owen’s got one”, I said, “and I won’t be surprised if Becca has too”.

“Didn’t you teach Becca canoeing when she was little?”

“I did – she was eight years old the first time I took her out on the river”.

“She told me about that once. How come you guys didn’t go punting or rowing – aren’t they the Oxford things to do?”

“I’ve been punting, but I don’t like it as much. I’ve never rowed; it was always more of a competitive sport, and I was never really into that. I liked exploring, so a canoe felt just right”.

“And very Canadian, too!”

“Yeah – that was a happy coincidence”.

I was curious about her reaction to the service we had just attended. “What did you think of church this morning?” I asked.

“Like you said, it felt a lot like a Catholic service. If I’d been more used to it, I’m sure it wouldn’t have felt so awkward. But there were some things I missed”.

“Like what?”

“Well, I like it in our church when people get to share about what’s happening in their lives and bring prayer requests. And I like that there isn’t just one person leading; it feels more like a community when people are getting up from the congregation to lead parts of the service. I didn’t get the sense that the folks this morning were really all that interested in each other. And then I also wondered about the ornate building, you know, and the things Jesus says about not storing up treasures on earth and all that. Still, it wasn’t bad; I liked the minister’s sermon”.

“So did I”.

“I don’t know if I want to go there all the time, though”.

“No – after we get a place of our own we’ll have a look around and see if we can find something a little more like our church back home”.

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, but to my surprise he suggested we take a walk around the garden. The afternoon was warm and muggy; he was wearing a white shirt and a pair of old grey trousers, and I had changed after dinner into shorts, tee shirt and sandals.

Gardening was my father’s only real relaxation. Growing flowers has never held any real attraction for me, although I quite enjoy vegetable gardening. Nevertheless, I strolled along beside him and listened as he pointed out the various plants in their beds and described the processes by which they had been raised to their present state of maturity. I knew from long experience that he was rarely happier than when he could talk about his plants.

After taking a turn around the garden, 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”.

“So, you’re having chemotherapy once a week?” I asked hesitantly.

He shot me a suspicious glance, put his glasses back on, and said, “That’s what’s supposed to be happening, but it doesn’t always work out; the damn doctors can’t seem to get things right”.

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

Again he gave me that sideways glance. “Yes, I suppose you know about all that stuff. Did your wife have chemotherapy too?”

“Chemo, and radiation – not that either of them did her a lot of good in the end”.

“Well, I’m not going to let this thing lick me”, he asserted. “I’m sure I’ll be fine once the doctors get my treatment right”.

“What exactly are they saying?”

He looked up at me sharply; “What’s your sister been telling you?”

“She says they gave you two years at the most”.

“Then why are you asking me? I know you and Becca are as thick as thieves. I suppose you’re looking forward to a nice fat inheritance; that’s why you’ve come scurrying back after all these years”.

I stared at him; “You think?”

“Well, it seems quite a coincidence that after staying away for all these years, you’d decide to come back just when you think I’m dying!”

I was quiet for a few minutes, hoping that my silence would ease the confrontational tone the conversation had taken. But he had another issue he wanted to raise with me, and after a moment he said, “I’m surprised that an educated man like you still carries on with churchgoing; I know your wife introduced you to religion, but I had hoped that by now you’d have been able to see through all of that”.

I paused, suppressing my initial gut reaction. “I just see things a little differently, that’s all. As I said this morning, it isn’t just a rigmarole to me; it’s how I make sense of my life”.

“So you actually believe all that stuff?”

I sat silently for a few moments, dreading the continuation of this conversation. I knew very well the form it would take; I would trot out my reasons for believing in God, he would demolish them with faultless courtroom logic, and then be absolutely unable to understand why I refused to abandon my beliefs because of his arguments. He would get more and more worked up about it, I would retreat more and more into my shell, and the controversy would end with him losing his temper and storming off in a rage.

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

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

“I didn’t come to my faith through arguments; I came to it through a sense of need”.

“That’s pure wish-fulfilment, and you know it. You’ve adopted religion as a crutch for your weakness”.

“Well, sometimes when you’ve got a broken leg, a crutch is a good thing”.

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

“Would it make you feel any 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”.

“Can we just accept that I believe in God and you don’t, and leave it at that?”

“You’ve allowed sentiment to twist your logic again, just like you did when you decided to become a teacher because of your sentimental attachment to George Foster. Sentiment is all very well, Tom, but you need reason and common sense if you’re going to be able to deal with the real world, not some make-believe fantasy”.

“Make-believe fantasy? That’s the life I shared with Kelly, is it?”

“Now, there’s no need to take it personally; that’s another weakness of yours”.

“Thanks, Dad”, I responded icily; “I really need you to point out my weaknesses!”

“There you go again! There’s no need to get so upset about it!”

I got to my feet and turned to face him. “Dad, I really don’t want to continue this conversation. I don’t 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. I’m going to go find Emma and see what she’s doing”.

As I went into the house I was mentally kicking myself for losing my temper with him and for allowing him to intimidate me with his barrister’s logic. What sort of a believer was I, when I couldn’t even assemble a rational argument for the existence of God that would be convincing to my father? Was my faith so feeble that I was afraid of even entering into a discussion with him?

No, I decided, it wasn’t. The problem was that, with my father, it would not be a discussion. It would be a courtroom debate, and for forty years his livelihood had depended on winning such debates. I had once had the opportunity to watch him in action in a courtroom. His logic had been flawless, his rhetoric persuasive, his command of the English language masterful. I could see immediately why he had made such a success of his profession as a barrister.

One thing he had never been good at, however, was a genuine discussion; the one consideration that would never enter his mind was that he might be wrong. I knew that if I was ever going to persuade him that there might be some validity to faith in God, it was unlikely to happen by the avenue of logic, because by that avenue he could wipe the floor with me every time. I had experienced that unpleasant sensation too many times in my childhood to relish the thought of its repetition now that I was in my forties.

My body had still not adjusted to the time difference between Saskatchewan and England, and later in the afternoon I went up to my room to have a nap. 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 her cousin Eric sitting on easy chairs across the empty fireplace from each other, playing their guitars. Eric was a pale young man with short dark hair, and this afternoon he was wearing jeans and a plain black tee-shirt. I could see immediately that he was a lot less accomplished as a guitarist than Emma, but I assumed that, being a little younger than her, he had not been playing as long. They were playing a song together that was unknown to me; Emma was singing, and also picking out a nice fingerstyle accompaniment. I stood at the door listening until they were finished, then applauded quietly as I slipped into the room and sat down opposite them.

“How long have you been standing there?” Emma asked with a smile.

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

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

“And my Dad’s the best of all”, Emma added. “Do you want to play, Dad?”

“No, I’m quite happy to listen. Are you here by yourself, Eric?”

“No; the others are out behind the house having lemonade”.

“Play something else; I’m not really awake yet, so I’ll just sit here and wake up while you play”.

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

“What else can you play?” Eric asked her. “Do you know any newer stuff?”

They compared musical notes for a minute, agreed on another tune I had never heard of, and started to play again. This time they both sang together; Eric had a fine voice, but I noticed again that his playing was not as smooth as Emma’s. When the song ended, he apologized to her for fumbling some of the chords, but she smiled reassuringly and told him it had sounded fine.

He gestured toward her guitar; “What sort of guitar is that?” he asked.

“It’s a Seagull; it’s a Canadian make, from Quebec. Dad got it for me; you should see his guitar, if you want to see a really nice one. It’s a Larrivée”.

“Mine’s just a cheap guitar”, Eric observed with a shrug. “Perhaps one day…”

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”, I said. “Keep it up; I’m going to 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 which at one time had probably 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; there was no sign of Rick’s two younger children. 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; 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. Where’s Rick?”

“Unfortunately he had to go in to work for a while this afternoon”.

“Does he often work on Sundays?”

She shrugged; “I’m afraid so”.

“Are Sarah and Anna here?”

“They’re swimming in the lake”, my mother said. “Did you pass the musicians on your way out?”

“I did”.

“Emma plays very well”, Alyson said.

“She’s been at it for about four years now”.

“Did you teach her?”

“Well, it started out that way, but she had a pretty good idea of what she wanted to learn, and after a while I just got out of the way and let her learn it”.

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

“She’s picked up some of my taste for folk music, but she also likes some light rock. She and her cousin Jake play bluegrass and country music, too, so her tastes are actually quite eclectic”.

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 Emma’s plans?” he asked me.

“She’s planning to look for work once the summer’s over. If she can’t find paying employment, she’s quite happy to volunteer in a seniors’ home; she’s done that sort of thing before. But I think she’s hoping we get to do a bit of travelling before the summer’s out. I’d like that too, if the house hunting goes well. Emma likes history, so I’d like to show her around a bit”.

“You’re going to look for a house, are you?” Alyson asked.

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

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

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

“Either would be fine”.

“Buying is always a better idea”, my father said; “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 changed the subject; “Have you got any definite ideas about places you’d like to go on your holiday?”

“Nothing definite yet. Becca’s been talking about a trip to York, perhaps by way of Lincoln. She’s hoping to get a week off some time in August, I think. If it’s later in the month, Becca and Emma will go by themselves; if it’s earlier, I’ll go with them”. I leaned forward and poured myself a glass of lemonade. “Are your kids doing anything for the summer?” I asked Alyson.

“We’ve got no concrete plans either”, Alyson replied. “We’ll probably do some day trips. Eric’s just started working at a greenhouse 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, I’m afraid”, my father said.

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

“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 several weeks each summer. Emma and I still like to do that”.

At that moment Emma and Eric appeared in the doorway; I noticed that she had put her hair into a ponytail and had donned a baseball cap to shade her face. I smiled at her; “Come to join the old folks?” I asked.

“We’re getting thirsty”, she replied.

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

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

“Are you sure? Do you know where to find the mix?”

“Oh yeah; I’ll be back in a minute”. I gave my mother a smile, then turned, slipped into the house and made my way back to the kitchen.

Link to Chapter 5.

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter Three

Link to Chapter Two

Chapter Three

All my life I have never been able to sleep on aircraft. From my first flight over to Europe as a teenager to my transatlantic trips, it has never mattered how tired I am; I still can’t go to sleep. I suppose it’s partly a fear of flying, although once the initial terror of take-off is over I’ve gotten quite good at controlling that part of it. It might be that I just don’t seem to be able to get comfortable in the seats on airliners. But a big part of it is still a mystery to me. I’m good at napping and can generally go to sleep anywhere for brief periods of time, but once in the air, I’m wide awake.

And so, when Emma and I took the overnight flight over the Atlantic in late July, I went through 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. Eventually, however, I gave up, sat up and took out a novel from my overnight bag. While Emma slept through the night beside me, I lost myself in the complicated character developments of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, an old favourite. It was not until the flight attendants began to come through the cabin with morning coffee that I closed the book, and by that time Emma was beginning to stretch.

I leaned forward, slipped the novel back into my overnight bag, and looked at my daughter sitting in the seat beside me. Her hair had been tied back for the trip, but some of it had come loose while she was sleeping. She yawned, opened one eye and looked at me. “Ouch!” she said as she moved her neck.

“Stiff?”

“These seats are designed for midgets. What time is it?”

I looked at my watch; “British time, eleven-fifteen in the morning”.

“How much longer to go?”

“About two hours”.

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

“No”.

“Poor Dad”. 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.

It had been an emotional farewell in Saskatoon the day before. Kelly’s parents, Will and Sally Reimer, had driven us down to the city; Joe and Ellie, Jake and Jenna had also come down to see us off, and Steve and Krista, Michael and Rachel had met us all in the city for a farewell meal. Will Reimer had been my school principal when I first arrived in Meadowvale in 1982, and in many ways he had become a father figure for me, especially after I had married his daughter in the Fall of 1984. Now 72, and retired for six years, he and Sally were still very close to Emma and me. They understood why we were moving to England, and they had been very supportive, but Emma was their granddaughter, and I knew that the news of our leaving had hit them hard. Nevertheless, Will kept his bearded face as cheerful as possible as we checked our baggage through to Toronto and then to Heathrow. We had plenty of it, of course; several suitcases and boxes, and two guitars in hard cases as well. 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 how deeply the five of them were feeling this parting, especially Emma, Jake and Jenna, who had grown up literally around the corner from each other. The rest of us went to the coffee shop, where we sat together talking about little things and trying not to watch the clock.  After a while the five cousins came 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, “I guess we’d better be moseying on down to the gate”. We all got to our feet, and they followed us down to the security check-in. I said my goodbyes to Krista and Steve and their kids, and then Jake and Jenna and their Mom and Dad. 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; I’ll call, and you call us too”.

Will was embracing 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 far too upset to reply. She turned to Jake and Jenna and gripped them in a desperate three-way hug. I stood beside them, waiting; even Jake, one year Emma’s senior, had tears in his eyes, and when Emma finally released them she was unable to speak or even look at me. I took her hand and led her toward the entrance to the security lounge; she remained silent as we cleared security and as we waited in the departure lounge, and on the three and a half hour flight to Toronto she said barely a word, although she did reach out occasionally to grip my hand. On the transatlantic flight to Heathrow she ate her supper in silence and then quickly fell asleep, leaving me to cope with my insomnia – and my own sense of grief – alone.

The flight attendants were bringing breakfast trays around now; when Emma returned to her seat, she shook her head at sausage and eggs but accepted a continental breakfast instead. I was already eating my own breakfast, and the strong airline coffee was beginning to do its work.

“You slept pretty well”, I observed.

“Yeah, I don’t remember much about the night”. She took a mouthful of croissant, chewed thoughtfully for a moment, and then said, “So Owen and Lorraine are meeting us at Heathrow?”

“Owen, anyway; I don’t know about Lorraine”.

“I wonder what Andrew and Katie are like now?” My friend Owen Foster had two children, Andrew who was twelve and Katie who was nine.

“I expect they’re a lot quieter than they used to be”, I said.

“What about Uncle Rick’s children? It’s so long since I’ve seen them, I can barely remember who’s who”.

“Eric’s sixteen, Sarah’s just turned fifteen, Anna’s eleven”.

“What are they like?”

“I hardly know them either; my brother’s never been very good at keeping in touch and passing on the family news. Eric seems like a pretty studious sort of guy. I expect his Dad is grooming him to be the next generation of Masefields to go into the Law”.

“I take it that you don’t mean his Dad wants him to be a cop?”

I laughed; “I doubt it”.

“So what sort of family are they? Are they close?”

“I don’t really know. I think Rick successfully inherited our Dad’s work ethic, which means he believes in fourteen-hour days at the office; also, I should warn you that his drinking problem has gotten a lot worse in the past few years”.

“How much worse?”

“Becca says he drinks most evenings. Sometimes he says things he probably regrets afterwards; I saw that when I was there back in March. I don’t think anyone in the family is dealing with it all that well, with the possible exception of Becca”.

There was a thoughtful look in Emma’s eyes; I knew that one of her close friends had an alcoholic parent. She gave me a wry grin and said, “You Masefields are a weird lot, Dad. You and your father had a bust-up twenty years ago, Uncle Rick’s an alcoholic, and even Becca doesn’t really know how to relax and have a good time! Thank God the Reimer side of our family is a little more normal!”

I laughed and said, “Got that right!”

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

“I know; so do I”.

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

I took her hand. “It was always going to be a pretty harrowing experience for you. Don’t feel bad about feeling bad; don’t feel bad about feeling mad, either”.

She smiled; “The problem is, I can’t quite figure out who to be mad at. It’s not Grandpa’s fault that he’s dying of cancer, and it’s not your fault that 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 that 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”.

“Okay”.

We landed at Heathrow early in the afternoon, just as I had done four months before when I had come for my interviews. Owen had promised to bring a large rental car to the airport to pick us up, with all of our luggage.

And now I should say something about my friend Owen Foster. We first met when I moved to Northwood from the Oxford suburb of Summertown at the age of eleven. I had been happy in my circle of friends in Summertown, and as a shy, introverted sort of child I was not looking forward to beginning all over again in a new place. To make matters worse, my first experience of school in Northwood was not a happy one. During the mid-morning break on my first day I was attacked in the playground by three of the bigger and stronger boys; I was not a fighter myself, but Owen came to my rescue and helped me hold them off until one of the teachers intervened. Afterwards he introduced himself to me, and so began the longest friendship of my life.

Owen’s family lived in a comfortable old house down the road from us; he was the oldest of four children, and his father was an English teacher at the high school in the nearby town of Wallingford. Like me, Owen liked to read, but he also knew the countryside around our village. He knew exactly where to walk to see badgers or find bird’s nests or good streams for fishing or anything else you liked; he had a delicious sense of rootedness about him. By September, when we went to high school in Wallingford together, we were fast friends. We spent most of our holiday time together; we walked in the country for miles, and he took me out on the Thames and taught me all about canoeing. We both got our first guitars when we were twelve, 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.

Another factor in Owen’s life was his faith. His family was strongly Christian, and as he moved into his teens he became more intentional about his own Christian beliefs. No one in my family went to church except at Christmas, but Owen attended the local Church of England church with his family every week. Sometimes I asked him questions about this, and he was always happy to talk about it, but he never tried to coerce me into adopting his beliefs.

At our high school, Owen’s father George Foster taught me English language and literature, and he was a firm but patient teacher. In fact, he was the one who first gave me the idea of becoming a teacher. I kept this idea to myself 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. This was not news to me; I had long been aware of his plans for me, but until now I had made no comment about them. However, something made me decide to speak up on that day.

“Actually, I don’t want to read Law”, I said quietly.

I heard my mother’s sudden intake of breath at the other end of the table, and my father looked up sharply at me. “Don’t want to read Law? What nonsense is this?”

“Well”, I said, “I actually think I’d like to be a teacher”.

“A teacher!” he exclaimed. “Don’t be ridiculous! People only become teachers when they can’t do anything else!”

“That’s not true!” I protested. “Mr. Foster isn’t like that. He’s very clever; he could have been a doctor or a scientist or anything, but he wanted to help other people and he thought teaching was the best way to do it. He told me about it once, when I asked him why he’d decided to become a teacher”.

“So you’d rather be like him than me, then?”

“That’s not what I mean, Dad!”

“Then what precisely do you mean?”

And so the Great War began. That was what Owen and I called it, because of course I told Owen 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 my family, but he was always willing to listen, and I felt he understood and sympathized with me.

I well remember that first time I told him about the conflict between my father and myself. After I had finished talking, he sat quietly for a moment, then looked across at me and quoted “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man”.

Hamlet”, I replied; I had already come to love Shakespeare. In fact, in my own edition of the Complete Works, the words he had quoted were underlined, and I had already reflected on their significance.

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 to study at university could no longer be put off. My father wanted me to do pre-law studies, but I was adamant: I wanted 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 had no doubt that Rick and Becca could hear us in their rooms. My mother had long since given up imploring us to stop shouting at each other, and was now sitting in silence, her sadness written plainly on her face. And then something new happened, something I had never seen before. My father must have been extremely frustrated; I realize now that he must have felt he was losing the Great War, because only desperation could have led him to ask for my mother’s help in the matter.

“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, Frank”.

I have 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, Mum”, I whispered.

She looked up at me, and I could see that the sadness was still there in her eyes. “Follow your dream, Tom”, she said. “It’s the only thing any of us can ever call our own”.

I have no idea whether my mother suffered any consequences for speaking her mind. All I know is that from that point on my father said nothing more about my plans for university. My mother helped me make all the arrangements, and so it came about that Owen and I went up to Oxford together: he, who had always known he wanted to be a doctor, and I, who had long known that I wanted to be a teacher. When in Oxford we walked together, drank beer together, played music together, and were altogether inseparable. 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. It was Wendy, in fact, who had first made the comment that Owen and I were like two trees growing out of the same root; ‘joined at the roots’ was the phrase she used, and it stayed with me over the years, as did Owen’s friendship.

He 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 been the natural choice to play the part of Captain Hook in pantomimes of ‘Peter Pan’ when we were children. Today the rascally look was underlined by the black tee shirt and dark wrap-around sunglasses he was wearing. 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 bad taste. Come along then – the car’s not far away”.

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

“Don’t worry – I rented an MPV”.

His vehicle was parked very close, and the reason for that became clear as we got near to it; his wife Lorraine was in it, and she had been driving around and pulling up to the waiting area every few minutes. She already had the tailgate up, and after greeting us with hugs she helped us pack our luggage in. Lorraine was as tall as Owen, with graying blonde hair cut just above her shoulders. After slamming the tailgate shut she turned and gave Emma another hug. “It’s so good to see you again, Em!” she said. “Andrew and Katie are looking forward to seeing you, too!”

Emma gave a cheerful grin; “The last time they pounced on me – like in the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, you know!”

We all laughed, and Owen said “They’re a bit older now, so it isn’t quite that bad. You’re a bit older too, Emma; you’ve grown into quite a beautiful young lady since the last time we saw you!”

“Thanks”, she replied shyly.

We climbed in, Lorraine insisting that I sit in the front with Owen while she and Emma took the back seats. Owen steered the van away from the sidewalk; “So you’ll be staying at your mother and father’s for a few weeks?” he asked me.

“Yeah, until we find a place of our own. We’ll see how it goes”.

“Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me, but you know your own business, I suppose”.

“Well, since I’m supposed to be here to build a better relationship with my Dad, it seemed to make sense to stay with them for the first few weeks”.

“You know that the offer to stay with us is always open”.

“I know – let’s see how it goes”.

“Em, I see you’re still playing your guitar?” Owen observed, glancing over his shoulder at her.

“Yeah”.

“Have you played at any open stages yet?”

She laughed; “There aren’t too many in Meadowvale!”

“I suppose not; never gone down to one in the city, then?”

“No”.

“Well, you’ll have to get your Dad to take you out to one in Oxford; there are some really good ones”.

“I don’t think I’m quite ready for that yet!”

“How’s your band doing?” I asked him.

“We’re playing at the ‘Plough and Lantern’ in a couple of weeks”, he replied.

“So the ‘Plough’ still has live music?”

“Yes; open stage every Friday night, and concerts on Saturday nights”.

“Is Bill still there?” Bill Prentiss had been the landlord at the ‘Plough and Lantern’ pub in our university days.

“He is, actually, but he tells me he’s only going to keep it up for one more year. He turned sixty-five in April, you know. Do you feel like playing there with us in a couple of weeks?”

I laughed; “Not without a lot more practice!”

“You didn’t do too badly last time you were with us”.

“Yes, but that was six years ago. I wouldn’t mind getting together informally some time just to play some tunes, though”

“That would be good”. He glanced at Emma again in his rear view mirror; “Are you tired, Em?”

“I’m fine – I slept pretty 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 and take you up through some pretty villages and towns on the way home. We could stop for a cup of tea at Henley, if you like”.

We all agreed to this, and so Owen took the M4 west past Slough and Maidenhead, before cutting northwest across country toward Henley-on-Thames. While we were still on the busy motorway, with several lanes of traffic going in both directions, Emma noticed the familiar bulk of Windsor Castle a short distance away on our left. “I should know what that place is, shouldn’t I?” she asked Lorraine.

“That’s Windsor Castle”.

“Right – that’s one of the Queen’s houses, isn’t it?”

“That’s right”.

I saw her out of the corner of my eye, scanning the castle as we sped past. “Looks like she’s got lots of room for a few homeless people in there”, she said.

Owen laughed; “If I were you, Em, I’d be careful about making those sorts of observations while staying at your grandparents’ house!”

“Didn’t you two go down to Mexico again last year?” Lorraine asked her.

“Yeah, we did”.

“What was that about again?”

“We were building houses with Habitat for Humanity”, Emma replied.

“How many times have you been down there now?”

“I don’t remember the first time – I was only little – but I remember two trips while Mom was still alive. Last year was the first time Dad and I have been down there since she died”.

“What was it like?” Lorraine asked.

“I don’t really know how to describe it”, Emma replied. “I mean, I get sucked into consumerism as easily as anyone else, but every time we go down there and see the poverty people live in – well, I’m like, I’m never going to live in extravagance again”.

“Stand by for some good views of extravagance when we get to Henley-on-Thames”, said Owen with a grin; “It’s where the rich and famous live and play!”

When we arrived at Henley, Owen found a riverside pub that served afternoon tea, and as the weather was fine we sat out on the patio, watching the boat traffic on the river. Emma had lapsed into silence again, and Owen and Lorraine were instinctively sensitive to this; I had alerted them beforehand to the ambivalence she felt toward our move, and I was grateful that they made no attempt to ‘cheer her up’.

Leaving Henley behind, we pressed on through the Chiltern hills, and now 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 in Saskatchewan. Nonetheless, Emma perked up a little on this section of the journey; she was obviously charmed by the beauty of our surroundings, and she made frequent comments and observations about things she saw along the way.

We came down into the Thames Valley again at Wallingford, where Owen and I had gone to High School; he drove past our old school, pointing it out to Emma and telling her a couple of stories about our joint escapades. We crossed the river again on the old stone bridge with its graceful arches, and turned toward our old home town of Northwood. This was going to be the first time Emma had been at her grandparents’ home since she was eleven; over the two years since Kelly died I had become steadily more adept at guessing what was going on inside my intensely private daughter, and I knew that she was nervous as Owen steered through the village and then turned left onto the driveway to my parents’ spacious home.

“Wow!” she said. “I’d forgotten how big it is! How many rooms does it have?”

“Twenty-five”, I replied.

“With a spiral staircase, and servants’ quarters, right?”

“Yes, although there were never any servants in our time. In fact, I’ll bet you’ll be sleeping in the servants’ quarters. Those rooms have been fixed up very nicely now; they’re quite cosy”.

Owen pulled up opposite the front door and turned off the engine. As we climbed out of the car my mother was already advancing down the steps 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; “Hello Grandma; it’s nice to see you again”.

“I’ve got your rooms all ready”, my mother said. “How are you, Owen?”

“Very well, thank you, Mrs. M.; we’ll help carry Tom and Emma’s stuff inside”.

“Thank you – that would be very kind”.

And so we all trooped inside, and Emma whistled her admiration at the spiral staircase. “I’d forgotten what it looked like!” she exclaimed. “Didn’t I slide down that the last time I was here?”

“Yes”, I replied, “and I got into trouble for letting you get away with it!”

Once we were settled, and all our luggage delivered to our rooms, Owen and Lorraine excused themselves, promising to call me in a day or two. 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, put Kelly’s photograph back on the night table, changed into a clean shirt and then went down the hall to Emma’s room. As I had predicted, 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.

“You still like the grounds?”

“I love them. Can we go and have a look?”

“In a while. I expect there’s something to drink down in the front room, and before too long it’ll be supper time. Is this room going to be okay for you?”

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.

“What’s not to like?” she asked. “The servants must have had a pretty classy life!”

At that moment there was a knock on the door and Becca slipped into the room, dressed in a summer skirt and a loose top, a warm smile on her face. Emma’s face lit up; “Becca!” she cried, and the next moment the two of them were holding each other tight, laughing, kissing each other, leaning back to smile at each other and then hugging each other again.

“Did you just get here?” Emma asked.

“I just walked in the door”. She turned to me, and we gave each other a hug and a kiss.

“Are you staying for supper?” Emma asked.

“Absolutely”, she replied, stepping back with a smile, “and Rick and his family will be here in a little while, too. And tomorrow being Saturday, I’ve got the day off, and 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, a DVD at my flat, walking, canoeing on the river – it’s up to you!”

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

“I’m awake!” Emma insisted. “Will you be alright without me, Dad?”

“Absolutely; I may even do a bit of wandering around myself”.

“Anyway”, Becca said, “I was sent up here on a mission to summon you very shortly to the living room, where drinks are being served, following which, when the rest of the family arrives, we will move to the dining room for supper”. She fixed me with an admonishing eye and added, “You are going to shave before supper, aren’t you?”

Emma laughed. “It’s the summer holidays”, she said; “He only shaves once a week!”

I stroked my bristly chin defensively; “I’m rather fond of my stubble, actually”, I mused.

“Remember, Tommy, we’re all trying to get along with each other”.

“Right; okay, give me a minute and I’ll be as presentable as you like”.

As Becca had said, Rick and Alyson and their children joined us for supper. 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 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. Emma and Becca were soon deep in conversation, but after a while Rick’s children, who at first seemed a little in awe of their Canadian cousin, began to ask her some hesitant questions, which she answered quietly and politely, as I knew she would.

However, the overall mood at the table was tense; Rick had obviously been drinking already, and he was making short work of the bottle of red wine on the table in front of him. His face was flushed, and from time to time he made inappropriate or obnoxious comments, prompting embarrassed looks from his children and my mother, and occasional quiet protests from Alyson.

I had been shocked when I first saw my father again; his skin colour had faded noticeably, 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 no attention whatsoever to the conversation of his grandchildren, and they, obviously well used to this, continued to talk amongst themselves.

My mother had obviously worked hard on the meal; a homemade cream of broccoli soup, followed by roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, with a selection of cakes for dessert. It was while she was serving the coffee and dessert that eleven-year old Anna looked across at Emma and asked innocently, “Didn’t your Mum ever have more children?”

“Let’s talk about something else, shall we, Anna?” said her mother hurriedly.

“That’s all right”, Emma assured her; “I don’t mind”. She gave me a quick sideways glance, as if to make sure that I was okay with the conversation, and then turned back to Anna. “My Mom had ovarian cancer when I was a little girl”, she explained. “She had to have surgery to remove her ovaries, and that meant that she couldn’t have any more children”.

“So you couldn’t have any brothers and sisters?”

“No, but my Mom’s brother, my Uncle Joe, lives in Meadowvale too; he and my Auntie Ellie have two children, Jake and Jenna, and we’re about the same age. So I grew up with my cousins really close by; they actually live just around the corner from us, and we’re kind of like brother and sisters. And then my Mom’s younger sister, my Auntie Krista, lives in Prince Albert, and she and my Uncle Steve have two kids, Michael and Rachel, but they’re a little younger than me”.

“They’re a very close family”, Becca added, “and a big one too – Kelly’s Dad was one of eight, I think, wasn’t he, Tommy?”

“He was”, I confirmed, “and her Mom was one of seven. Reimer and Wiens family reunions are enormous; they need to hire the community hall for them, and there are literally dozens of cousins and second-cousins of Emma’s generation”.

“So they actually have family reunions, do they?” Rick asked; “People actually attend that sort of thing?”

“They’re very popular in Saskatchewan”.

Rick took a sip of his wine, replaced the glass on the table, and said, “So, what exactly does one do at a family reunion? I find the concept rather bizarre”.

My mother was passing out coffee; I paused to accept a cup from her, and Emma said, “We’ve just had one a couple of weeks ago, actually”.

“So what did you do?” he asked her.

“On the Friday night we had a huge supper at the community hall, followed by a dance. Last time we did it we had a DJ, but this time there was a sort of family decision to put together a dance band, and Dad and I got to play some bluegrass music”.

My brother raised an eyebrow at me; “You play bluegrass music?”

“I can’t deny it; my sister-in-law plays bluegrass fiddle, and she introduced me to it”.

“Really, Tom – you never cease to amaze me!” He smiled at Emma: “Sorry I interrupted the gripping tale; do tell us more”.

I saw the confusion flash momentarily across Emma’s face; I knew instinctively that she wasn’t sure whether or not he was being sarcastic. She hesitated, gave me another sideways glance, and then said, “Well, the next day we had a softball tournament in the afternoon, and then in the evening we had smaller gatherings for supper. Some of the people there hadn’t seen each other in quite a while, so there was a lot of visiting and conversation. On Sunday a lot of us went to church together, and then in the early afternoon there was another enormous meal at the community hall. After that people started to head out for home”.

“And these were all Reimers, were they?”

“Actually”, I said, “this was a Wiens family reunion – Kelly’s Mum’s family. Not that there weren’t Reimers there, not all of them related to us – at least, as far as we know”. I grinned across at Emma; “Sometimes it seems like there are maybe a couple of dozen German Mennonite surnames that cover about three quarters of the population”.

“Sounds downright incestuous”, Rick replied with a bemused expression on his face. “One wonders how they manage to find marriage partners! Perhaps that’s why you were brought in – fresh blood, and all that. Perhaps you were part of a plot to rejuvenate the family tree!”

Emma said nothing, and I could tell by the expression on her face that she did not like the tone of the conversation. Eric, who had been listening carefully from further down the table, 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?”

“Thank God for that!” Rick exclaimed with a sneer. “Some of them are insufferable when they show up in ones and twos, never mind in packs!”

“Actually, I rather liked my extended family in Saskatchewan”, I said. “They were very good to me. In fact, Kelly and I first met at a little Reimer family gathering the first year I was in Meadowvale”.

“Really?” Rick replied with a grin. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard this story.”

I hesitated, glancing at Emma, and then said, “Well, Kelly’s father Will was the principal of Meadowvale School when I first moved there. The second weekend in October is Thanksgiving in Canada; it’s a big family gathering time, and Will knew I had no family or close friends nearby. So he invited me over to his place for Thanksgiving dinner. Will and Sally were there, and Kelly’s older brother Joe and his wife Ellie – actually, I don’t think they were married yet, just engaged – and Krista, Kelly’s little sister, who was home from university, plus a few assorted aunts and uncles and cousins, and of course Kelly. She was nursing in Jasper at the time, but she had come home for the weekend. We got talking during the meal and she found out that I liked hiking and camping and that sort of outdoor stuff, so she offered to show me around Jasper National Park if I was ever in that area. She was pretty good-looking, so I took her up on her offer!”

“Oh, that’s how it went!” Rick said with a lascivious laugh, his speech beginning to slur. “And before very long the two of you were banging away merrily in a tent, no doubt?”

He was reaching for the wine bottle and hadn’t noticed that the rest of us weren’t laughing. There was a shocked silence at the table; the blood had drained from Becca’s face, my mother’s hand had flown to her mouth, and I was barely restraining the sudden urge to strike at my brother. But it was Emma who broke the silence; the tears were welling up in her eyes as she got to her feet, looked straight at her uncle with the hurt plain on her face and said “I can’t believe you just said that about my Mom, Uncle Rick”. She turned and left the room; Becca began to get to her feet to follow, but I grabbed her hand quickly. “Let her go”, I said.

Rick gave an awkward grin; “Well, someone’s a bit sensitive tonight!” he said.

“Rick, you are such a shit!” Becca said angrily; “I can’t believe you’d talk about Kelly like that. She was the most admirable human being I ever met; what the hell were you thinking?”

“Now, now!” Rick replied with an inebriated grin.  “Listen to her language!”

“Richard!” my father’s voice cut thinly across the room. “Hold your tongue. Your comment was entirely inappropriate, and you know it”.

“But…!”

My father gave Rick an angry look, and after a moment my brother swore softly, got to his feet and stumbled out of the room. His children were watching, and I could see the pain on their faces. Alyson’s eyes were wet with tears. “I’m so sorry, Tom”, she whispered. “That was completely uncalled for”.

“It’s not your fault; let’s forget about it. Mum, this coffee’s excellent; can I have another cup, please?”

“Of course”. And as my mother got up to pour my coffee the conversation slowly resumed around the table. Inside, however, I was feeling desolate. My first conversation with my brother back in March had gone reasonably well, but I was beginning to understand that with Rick, conversations like that were a rarity.

It was about an hour later when Rick and his family left, Alyson clutching the car keys firmly in her hand. Just before slipping out the door she pulled me aside again and whispered “Tom, I am so sorry; Rick’s comment was so inappropriate! Please, please, apologise to Emma for us. He would never have said such a thing if he had not been drinking”.

“I know; don’t worry yourself over it. Drive home safely now”.

As I watched their car pull off down the driveway Becca came and stood beside me, her hand on my arm. “Are you okay?” she asked.

“I’m okay; how about you?”

“Oh, I’m getting over it. I know I shouldn’t have lost my temper, but I was just thinking about that first summer I spent with you when I was seventeen, and how kind Kelly was to me when I was just a confused teenager. I couldn’t bear to hear him talking about her like that”.

“I know, but you need to remember what Alyson said: he was drunk, and he would never have said it otherwise”.

“That excuse is wearing a bit thin with Rick, I’m afraid; no one holds a gun to his head and forces him to start drinking. What about Emma? Do you think she’s had enough time to get over it yet?”

“I don’t know. I’m going to go up now and see her”.

I went up the spiral staircase wearily, my body feeling the night’s sleep it had missed on the flight over. I made my way back to the old servants’ quarters and knocked quietly on Emma’s door.

“Who is it?”

“It’s me”.

“Come in”.

I slipped into the room; the lights were out, and she was sitting up on the bed, her back propped up against the pillows. She had left the curtains open, and in the dying light from the window I could see that her eyes were red. I crossed the room, sat down on the bed and put my arms around her. “Are you okay?” I asked softly.

“I feel so stupid, Dad; he was drunk, and I knew it, so why did I let myself get so upset?”

“Because it was about your mom”.

I felt her nodding against my shoulder. “If he’d been rude about anything else…” Her body began to shake, and I tightened my grip around her, stroking her hair with my right hand as she cried.

After a moment her tears subsided. “I still miss her so much, Dad”, she whispered. “I don’t think it’ll ever go away”.

“I know”.

“Of course you do; I’m sorry”. She disengaged herself, kissed me softly on the forehead, and sat back against her pillows. “Are you all right?” she asked.

“I’ll be okay; don’t worry about me. Would you like anything to drink?”

“I can’t face them down there tonight”.

“Shall I bring you up a cup of hot chocolate?”

“Would you? That would be really nice”.

I got to my feet; “Are you going to get ready for bed soon?” I asked.

“Yeah; I’m really tired”.

“I’ll get your hot chocolate for you, then”.

I went down to the kitchen, where my mother and Becca were busy washing the pots and pans. “I’m going to make Emma a cup of hot chocolate”, I said as I went to the stove and picked up the kettle. “I presume there’s some in the house, Mum?”

“Of course; it’s in the tea cupboard”. My mother turned from the sink and looked at me through worried eyes; “Is she all right?”

“She’s very upset, but it’s more than half with herself. She’ll be alright”.

“With herself?” Becca asked. “Why?”

“She’s beating herself up for getting annoyed with a man who was drunk”.

“She had every right to be annoyed with him!” my sister replied angrily. “I felt like slapping him myself!”

“It was such a pity”, my mother commented sadly, turning back to the sink; “She was having such a lovely conversation with Anna. She was so kind and polite to her, Tom; I was most impressed with her tonight. Please tell her that from me when you take her hot chocolate up, will you?”

I kissed the back of my mother’s head. “Thanks, Mum”, I said. “I will”.

Link to Chapter Four

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter Two

Link to Chapter One.

I landed at Heathrow Airport on the first Sunday of spring break in the early afternoon. I had left home the day before, leaving Emma to look after the house and enjoy the company of her cousins for the holiday, while I flew back to England to visit my parents and do a couple of job interviews. I had already done three by phone, but two schools had been glad to schedule face to face interviews with me when they found out I was coming over.

There was low cloud over Heathrow that day, and the aircraft seemed almost to drop out of it onto the rooftops of the houses below. The buildings sped by under the wheels; I caught a glimpse of moving cars below as we flew over a major road, and a moment later the runway rose up to meet us. The aircraft landed heavily, and the whine of the engines turned to a dull roar as they were thrown into reverse. We slowed to taxiing speed, and the voice of the flight attendant welcomed us to London.

Security was tight at Heathrow that day; a few weeks before, the Americans had begun their invasion of Iraq, and Britain had joined their ‘coalition of the willing’. Customs officials were giving passports and luggage a careful screening, and by the time I got to the arrivals lounge almost an hour had elapsed since my plane had landed. As I emerged into the lounge dozens of people were gazing expectantly in my direction from behind a rope barrier. I slowed to scan the sea of faces, and after a moment I found the familiar face toward one end of the crowd; my sister Becca, twelve years my junior, who had driven over from Oxford to meet me. Slightly shorter than me, her blonde hair cut just above her shoulders, she was dressed casually in jeans and a light spring jacket. She was smiling broadly, having already seen me as I emerged from the double doors; I walked quickly over to her, and she greeted me with a warm hug and a kiss.

“You look exhausted”, she said. “Here, give me your bag. How’s Emma?”

“Good; I left her with Jake and Jenna”.

“There’s a coffee shop over in the corner there; do you want to pick up some takeout coffee before we go to the car?”

“That’d be fine”.

So we lined up for a few minutes to get coffee, and then made our way up to where her car was parked on the top level of the car park. She opened the doors, threw my bag into the trunk, 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. “It’s good to see you!” she said. “Owen and Lorraine send their love. They’re really sorry not to be here to meet you”.

“Too bad they had to be away”, I said, stifling a yawn. My old friend Owen Foster, who had been a doctor in the Oxford area for many years, was Becca’s senior partner.

She started the car, pulled out of the parking spot, and drove toward the exit ramp. “Looks like you’ll be needing that coffee to keep you awake!” she said with a smile.

“Sorry – you know how bad I am at sleeping on planes. How’s Dad doing?”

“He’s lost a lot of weight, and he gets tired very quickly”.

“How’s his treatment going?”

She shook her head; “It was always a long shot, Tommy”.

“How do you mean?”

“Lymphomas like his are lethal, and they move quickly and steadily. If he were younger, the prognosis might be better, but his age is counting against him, I’m afraid”.

“Why does that make a difference?”

“Because the sort of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation he needs has nasty side effects, and they’re a lot harder to handle for older people. The most serious one is loss of white blood cells, which makes him more susceptible to infections”.

“I remember that with Kelly”.

“Of course you do. Then there’s the nausea, the tiredness, the ulcers in the mouth, the low platelet counts in the blood, and so on. Dad’s finding it very difficult. He’s supposed to have injections every week, but I think he’s missed several already – and of course, that cuts down on the effectiveness of the chemotherapy. And there’s another problem, too – he’s in denial”.

“He is?”

“Didn’t Mum tell you?”

“No”.

She pulled the car up at the ticket machine, paid for her parking, and then pulled out onto the busy road. “He’s talking as if it’s just a matter of going through the chemo and the radiation, and then things will turn out right in a year or so”.

“But you don’t agree?”

“You can never say for certain, of course; you can think you’ve made an accurate assessment, and then something can come along that will really surprise you. But in Dad’s case, all the signs are pointing down; I’ll be surprised if he lives another eighteen months”.

“Does he still go into the office?”

“Not any more; he hasn’t got the energy. Rick’s glad about that, of course; ever since Dad retired, Rick’s been wishing he would leave him alone and let him run the business”. Rick was my younger brother; he had followed the career path my father had wanted for me, and was now the managing partner of my father’s old legal firm.

“Dad’s never found it easy to let other people run their own lives, has he?”

“I’m afraid not; that’s one of the constants you can rely on, no matter what else changes!”

We both laughed, and then she said, “So two interviews this week, right?”

“Yes, one in Headington and one in Cowley; I’ve already done phone interviews for two in Reading and one in High Wycombe”.

“I’ll be hoping for Headington or Cowley; it would be nice to have you so close”. She reached over and put her hand on mine. “How do you feel about this move? Are you sad?”

“Mixed feelings, I suppose”. I looked out of the passenger window as the cars flashed past; “I’ve lived there for a long time”.

“How’s Emma feeling about it?”

“Her feelings are mixed too. She’s excited about spending an extended period of time in England and getting a closer look at her English roots, but there’s another part of her that’s dreading the thought of leaving Meadowvale”.

“Well, she’s lived there all her life, and Kelly’s family have always been so close…”

“Yes, and I know she doesn’t want me to sell the house, either. It’s one more link with Kelly, you see”.

“Of course”.

“Then there’s the business of her plans for the future”.

“She still wants to go into nursing, so she tells me?”

“Yes; she’s been volunteering at the senior’s lodge for the past year, and she’s really good with the old people. I don’t have any difficulty at all seeing her making a career of geriatric nursing”.

“Well, there’ll always be a need for geriatric nurses in England. If the move here did turn out to be permanent, she’d never be short of a job”.

“We haven’t talked about making a permanent move, Becs”.

“I understand; one day at a time”.

I dozed a little in the car as Becca negotiated the roads; we took the M40 from the London area northwest towards Oxford, and at times the traffic was heavy. When I was awake, we talked quietly about our family and reminisced about the past. She had visited us many times in Saskatchewan, both before and after Kelly’s death; when she was seventeen she had spent a whole summer with us, and after Kelly’s funeral she had stayed for a month to help Emma and me get back on our feet. She knew our Meadowvale family and friends well, and we were soon sharing stories and memories of her visits. The hour’s drive seemed to fly by, and before I knew it we were getting close to Northwood.

I thought of Northwood as my childhood home, but in fact we had moved there from Oxford when I was eleven. My earlier years had been spent in the Oxford suburb of Summertown, but I had preserved very few links with the place of my birth and early childhood. Northwood is a village of about two thousand people, situated in the Thames valley about four miles north of the town of Wallingford. At that point, the Thames is a fairly narrow stream flowing sedately between picturesque, tree-lined banks. It flows past the western edge of the old village; the newer, more modern housing estates are located across the bridge on the opposite side of the river.

We drove into Northwood around three-thirty, on a road that had once been my paper route, down a low hill into the east side of town. We went through the centre of the village with its narrow high street flanked by shop windows, the ancient church looming on our left. Becca turned at the church, and I looked around at the street I had once known so well, noticing the absence of some familiar buildings in the six years since I had been here last, and the addition of many more new ones. On the south side of the village we turned left 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, which had long since been 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. “Well, here we are”, she said as she turned off the engine, “and here’s Mum; she must have been watching at the window”.

My mother was emerging from the front door. She was in her late sixties now; in her youth she had been a concert pianist, and it was she who had encouraged me in my own interest in the arts and music. Getting out of the car I advanced toward her, noticing the new lines on her face since I had last seen her at Kelly’s funeral nearly two years ago. “Hello, Mum”, I said.

“Hello, Tom; welcome home”. We put our arms around each other and held each other for a long moment, and I felt her emotion in the tightness of her grip.

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 slept a bit earlier on. Let’s go inside, shall we?”

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 outside walls providing plenty of light, and today there was a small fire burning in the fireplace. Two armchairs and a chesterfield were grouped around the hearth; on the opposite wall a sideboard held a tray of bottles, and some other chairs were scattered around the edges of the room. 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”. His voice was not as strong as I remembered, and in fact as I took his hand I was struggling to relate his obvious frailty to the enormity of his stature in my mind. He had always been tall and wiry, but now he seemed gaunt and skeletal, his back a little bent, his face narrow and pale, 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 replied. 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?”

“Scotch, please”.

“Becca? Dry sherry?”

“Yes please, Dad”.

He poured drinks for everyone and passed them around; “Sit down, everyone”, 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.

“She’s let her hair grow long”, my mother observed as she looked over the pictures one by one, passing them over to my father as well. “Are these recent?”

I nodded. “Just a month or two ago”.

“She still looks so much like Kelly”.

“That’s what I always think”, Becca said softly.

My father glanced at the photographs my mother handed to him; “A month or two 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 smile of amusement; “You’ve certainly picked up the accent over the years!”

“It comes and goes. In Canada they say I sound British”.

“So you’ve got two interviews this week?”

“Yes, one in Headington and one in Cowley; I’ve already done three by phone”.

“Headington or Cowley would be nice”, my mother said. “Would you still be teaching English?”

“Yes”.

“You could live here”, my father suggested.

“We could do that, or we could start out here and then look for a place of our 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”.

“If I get a job nearby, I’ll certainly think about it, Dad”, I replied.

My mother passed the photographs back to me. “Rick and the family are coming for dinner tonight”, she said; “I hope you don’t mind?”

“Of course not, but I wouldn’t mind a little nap before then; as usual, I didn’t sleep too well on the plane overnight, and my body’s not quite sure what time it is”.

“Of course; I’ve got your old room made up for you”.

“Maybe I’ll go up and get settled in, then”.

Excusing myself, I slipped out, 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; the wallpaper and some of the furniture had been changed, but the view from the window out over the fields was still the same, and some of my childhood books were still in the bookcase against the wall. Putting my bag down on the bed I went out to the bathroom; a moment later I returned, opened my bag and took out a framed photograph of Kelly. I had taken it myself, on a camping trip four years ago; she was wearing a light jacket, her hair was blowing free in the wind, and she was smiling intimately at me. I remembered the occasion well; it had been the year before she was diagnosed with her second bout of cancer. I looked fondly at the photograph for a moment, then placed it carefully on the bedside table and began to unpack the rest of my things.

My brother and his family arrived just before six o’clock; we were sitting in the living room again when we heard the sound of the car pulling up in front of the house. My mother went out to greet them, and a moment later we all stood up as they entered the living room. Rick’s curly blond hair was beginning to turn grey and his face seemed pale and thin; I could see he had come straight from work as he was still dressed formally in dark suit and tie. He held out his hand to me; “Welcome home”, he said.

“Thank you; 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 a skirt and sweater; she worked as a research assistant for a wildlife conservation unit at the university 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, of course, since it had been six years since I was last in England, and they had never visited us in Canada.

My mother and Becca moved some extra chairs into the semi-circle around the hearth, and my father handed drinks around. “Why don’t we sit down?” my mother suggested; “Tom’s got some lovely photographs of Emma”.

And so my pictures made the rounds again. Sarah, a petite redhead who looked older than her fourteen years, asked, “How old is she now?”

“She’s seventeen”.

“What does that mean in Canada; is she doing something like A-levels?”

“She’ll be finishing Grade Twelve this June, which is like getting A-levels where we live”.

“So will she be going to university if you move over here?”

“Possibly”.

“What does she want to do?” asked Eric.

“She wants to be a nurse”.

“And what does she like to do when she’s not working, Tom?” Alyson asked.

“We both like doing outdoor things – camping, hiking, canoeing. She likes cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter, and she reads a lot as well, and plays guitar”.

My brother gave a wry grin; “Chip off the old block”, he said.

“Well, I won’t take responsibility for everything about her; the old block she got the nursing from was definitely her mother, not me!”

“Eric’s started to play guitar this past year”, Alyson said, glancing at her son.

“I’m not very good yet”, he said.

“Your Uncle Tom’s been playing since he was a teenager”, said Rick.

My mother got to her feet; “Well”, she said, “dinner’s ready, so Becca and I will go and put it on the table, if everyone wants to wash up”.

After dinner my brother surprised me by suggesting that we take a walk in the garden together. It was dark outside by then, of course, but the evening was clear, the temperature cooling off with a hint of moisture in the air.

We skirted my father’s flowerbeds in silence. At the bottom of the garden Rick glanced across at me and said, “So you’re really thinking of moving back, are you?”

“I really am”.

“Not thinking of going into the Law at long last, though?” he said with a smile.

“No, I’ll leave that to you. How’s it going?”

“It would have been a lot better if Dad had just let the thing go when he retired. It’s been nearly two years, and until he got sick there wasn’t a week went by that he wasn’t in the office at least twice. He hasn’t got the energy to come in any more, but even now he’s still aways asking me questions about it; it’s as if he thinks I haven’t got a clue!”

“He has had that effect on us, hasn’t he?”

My brother gave a short laugh. “We’ve got that much in common, haven’t we?”

“I’m afraid so”.

He stopped and turned to face me; “What’s this really all about, Tom?” he asked.

“What?”

“This move back to England. By all accounts you’ve got a nice cosy little pad out there in Canada, and your reports about the place are always glowing. Why are you giving it all up now?”

“Because Dad’s dying, of course”.

“And that means what? That you want to be sure of inheriting some of the money?”

I turned away for a moment; “I’d always assumed that he’d leave everything to Mum”, I replied darkly, my back to him, “but perhaps I’m wrong”.

“I expect he’ll leave most of it to her, along with the house, of course. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if he left some for the three of us as well”.

I turned back toward him; “That kind of thing honestly never entered my head”, I said as we resumed our walk. “I know I’ve been the black sheep of the family for many years, at least in Dad’s eyes, and I want to try to build some bridges while I still can. I really don’t want him to die without my knowing that I’d done my best to make things better between us”.

“You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Yes”.

“Well, rather you than me. Despite what appearances might seem to suggest, he and I aren’t exactly a cosy united front against your Canadian rebelliousness. We’ve got some scars, too, and I wouldn’t like to bet on our chances of healing them before he dies”.

“It doesn’t hurt to try”.

“I suppose not; have you got a plan?”

“Not really. Hopefully I can move back here, get a job, visit Mum and Dad and try to listen and be as helpful as I can. Then there’s Emma; it’ll be important for her to have known him a little better, I think”.

“She’s a pretty good kid, I hear?”

“Yes; she takes after her Mom”.

“Sorry about your wife, Tom”.

“Thank you”.

We lapsed into silence for a few minutes, walking slowly along the path. Eventually I said,  “Dad doesn’t look well, does he?”

“You would notice that more, coming here after being away for six years. For the rest of us, it’s been coming on so gradually that it’s only now we’re noticing it. When someone points it out to me, I can see it, but it would have taken me a long time to notice it myself. That’s Becca’s department, isn’t it?” he observed with a nervous laugh.

“I guess so”.

“Well, shall we walk back up to the house? I’m ready for a drink”.

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 for at least an hour after lunch, 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 there, and afterwards we had a long and satisfying conversation together over a pub lunch.

On the day before my flight home to Canada I had my last interview in Headington, at a high school with a good reputation for the teaching of languages and a solid academic record in other areas too. The interview went well, and I left with the sense that there was a good possibility I might be successful there. Alyson picked me up from the school and drove me out to Northwood; her greeting was friendly enough, but she seemed somewhat subdued as we made the short journey out to Northwood.

My mother had invited the whole family to dinner again that night; it was already almost six by the time we arrived, and everyone else was already there. My father was looking even more tired and pale, and there was a vague unidentifiable tension in the air. But my mother greeted me warmly when I entered the living room; I turned down a drink and asked for tea, and as she handed me a cup she asked, “How did the interview go?”

“Alright, I think. As far as I could tell no one thought my application was a total waste of time, anyway”.

“How soon will you know?” Becca asked, sitting with her legs curled under her on the chesterfield, a glass of sherry in her hand.

“Within a couple of weeks, I think”.

“Any sense of which way it might go?”

“Not really. I’m so unfamiliar with the process that I don’t even know how to read the signs”.

“Did it feel different, being back in English schools?” asked Alyson.

I took a seat on the chesterfield beside Becca. “A little, I suppose. I’m used to teaching in a smaller school; I keep forgetting how big some of the schools around here are. I guess that could be a little daunting, if I wanted to think about it”.

“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”.

“Well, I haven’t actually met any of them yet, so the situation hasn’t arisen. I’m sure the learning curve will be quite steep if I get the job. I know I’ll have to adapt to a different school culture from what I’m used to. I’ve never been under the impression that moving here would be easy”.

“At least the hours will be good”, Rick observed with a laugh, taking a sip of his drink.

I frowned; “Sorry?”

He grinned at me; “What is it, nine until three each day? You’re lucky you don’t have to survive in the business world, Tom!”

I looked at him in surprise, and suddenly began to notice his flushed face, and the speed with which the level of Scotch in his glass was going down. The vague tension in the air was becoming clear to me. I had known for a long time that my brother was fond of his drink, but in recent years, according to my sister’s letters, the problem was becoming more acute. Tonight, I realized, I was going to have an opportunity to observe the situation firsthand.

“Well”, my mother said, “the meal will be ready now. Shall we go into the dining room?”

The next morning, as Becca and I were sitting having coffee at a crowded café outside the departure lounge at Terminal Three, I said “I see what you mean about Rick’s drinking”.

“Yes, it’s become much worse since the last time you were here”.

“He’s not pleasant to be around when he’s had too much, is he?”

“He’s very rarely abusive, but his sense of humour loses all its inhibitions; his comments get quite off-colour and the sexual innuendo starts flying thick and fast. It’s very embarrassing for Alyson and the children”.

“I saw that. Has it begun to affect his work?”

“I don’t know; I never see his partners, and of course he’d be the last one to discuss it with me. I can see that Alyson struggles with it, but she and I aren’t very close and so I don’t know how she deals with it on a day-to-day basis”. She paused for a moment, her hands cradled around her coffee cup. “I’ve actually given it quite a lot of thought”, she continued; “Alcoholism’s something I’m quite interested in”.

“I didn’t know that”.

“I’ve taken some specialist courses in addictions over the years, and I’ve read a lot about it”.

“Are you finding it’s a common problem?”

“Much more common than we’d like to think”.

“So what are your thoughts about Rick?”

“I’m worried; I suspect he’s already done a lot of damage to his health. It’s very unusual now to see him in the evening when he hasn’t been drinking; I was quite surprised to see him sober that first night at Mum and Dad’s. Alyson usually drives when they’re going home together from an evening event, but she can’t be with him all the time, of course”.

“Do Mum and Dad ever talk about it?”

“The only one who talks about it is Dad, and his usual reaction when Rick’s been drinking is to lose his temper and yell at him”.

“Yes, I can see Dad hasn’t lost his forceful courtroom style around the house”.

She gave a wry grin; “Being sick hasn’t made him any easier to live with, has it?”

“It certainly hasn’t. I’m not sure how Emma will take it, actually”.

“Are you going to take them up on their offer to live there?”

“It wouldn’t be my first choice; you know how Emma and I live”.

“You’d be welcome to stay at my place, you know, and I’m sure Owen would make the same offer”.

“Thanks, but let’s cross that bridge when we come to it. The situation might not arise; I might not get a job nearby”.

“If one of them is offered, will you take it?”

“I think so. If I really want to build bridges with Dad and Mum, it makes sense to be close, doesn’t it? Also – well, to tell you the truth, it was nice to be around Northwood again. Despite all the conflicts with Dad, I enjoyed growing up there. If I do get a job close by, I’ll enjoy looking up old friends and exploring old haunts, and I’ll enjoy showing Emma around”.

“It would be really good to have you here”.

“Thanks”. I watched for a moment as an East Indian couple sat down at a table across from us, their coffee cups in their hands. Then I said, “Becs, can I ask you a personal question?”

“Of course; what is it?”

“Do you have any contact with Mike?”

Immediately my sister looked away from me. Mike Carey was a paramedic; he had been her boyfriend for 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, Mike and Becca had come to Meadowvale to visit Emma and me, and we had taken them camping in Jasper National Park for a couple of weeks.

“I know where he’s staying”, she said, “and we know each other’s phone numbers, but we haven’t talked intentionally since…”

“Sorry”, I said; “I shouldn’t have asked”.

“Don’t be silly!” she replied; “You and I don’t keep these things secret from each other; I know you’re concerned, and believe me, I’m grateful. To be honest, I’m still finding it pretty hard. The hardest thing, of course, is knowing that it was my fault”.

“You don’t know that”.

“Tommy, spare me the sympathy on this point; you and I have talked about this enough times to know that I’m the one who’s got to learn to get my compulsive work habits under control. Mike was sick and tired of getting short-changed when it came to my time, 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”.

“Do you still see Stevie regularly?” Stevie Fredericks was my sister’s closest friend from her high school years; she and her partner Nick lived in the Jericho area of Oxford.

“Yes, we still swim together once a week, and we always go for coffee afterwards”.

“You don’t do gymnastics any more, though?”

She laughed; “Not for a long time!”

I smiled at her; “I seem to remember that you and Stevie did pretty well in gymnastics competitions in high school”.

“We did”. She returned my smile and said, “Those were good days”.

I glanced at my watch; “Well, I’d better go through to my gate”.

“That time already?”

“I’m afraid so”.

We got to our feet, and I led the way out of the restaurant down toward the security check-in. “Give my love to Owen and Lorraine”, I said.

“I will – and you give Emma love and hugs from me”.

“I will”.

We reached the line up for the security check in, and I turned to face her. “Take care of yourself, Becs”, I said.

“You too, Tommy; see you soon”. We hugged each other tightly for a minute, and then I stepped back, gave her a grin, and turned toward the desk. I presented my passport and boarding card to the uniformed attendant; she scanned them briefly, then handed them back to me with a nod. I looked back, gave Becca one last wave, and then made my way through the door to the security lounge.

Link to Chapter Three

‘A Time to Mend’ chapter one

A few years ago I wrote a novel which I posted online on a separate blog which I have since deleted. I’ve been doing a major rewrite recently: the story has not changed substantially, but I’m hopeful that there’s been an improvement in the style of the writing. I’ll be putting the chapters up gradually. If you’ve read it before, let me know what you think of the changes (if you notice them!). If you haven’t read it before – well, I hope you enjoy it!

I picked up my mother’s letter at the post office on a Friday afternoon on the way home from the school where I worked as a teacher. It was a blustery prairie winter day, and I had made a concession to the stormy weather by driving to school that morning, rather than walking as I usually did. Amongst the bundle of bills and flyers in my mailbox I noticed my mother’s handwriting on an air mail envelope from England, and I thought nothing of it; she wrote to me regularly, and I tried to answer at least once a month.

My daughter Emma and I lived in a modest house on the edge of our small Saskatchewan town. I turned my truck into the back alley, gunned it through a couple of new snowdrifts and pulled in behind our garage. I had shoveled the walk to our back door that morning, but the snow had been blowing around while I was in school, and I could see I would have to do it again before the day was out. In the summer we had a sizeable vegetable garden in our back yard, but this was late January, and the ground was under two feet of snow.

There was a note in Emma’s handwriting waiting for me on the kitchen table:

‘I’ve put the lasagna in the oven, and I’ve just run down to the store for a few things. I’ll be back before it’s time to take it out. There’s fresh coffee. Love, Em’.

I turned and hung my coat up in the closet, poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table. On the wall above me was a family photograph taken four years previously, while my wife Kelly was still alive. My eyes lingered on her picture, dwelling on the soft curve of her cheek, the sparkle in her grey eyes, the way her long hair fell on her shoulders. Thirteen-year old Emma, standing between us in the picture, was like a younger version of her mother, with the same blond hair, grey eyes and slightly upturned nose.

After a moment I took a sip of coffee, opened my mother’s letter, and spread it out on the table in front of me.

‘Northwood, Oxfordshire.
‘January 20th 2003.

‘Dear Tom:

‘I’m writing to let you know that your father is rather seriously ill. He has been diagnosed with lymphoma, and the doctor has said that he has two years at the most to live, probably less. I’m writing the evening after we received this news, so you will excuse me if I can’t at this point remember the exact medical details of the diagnosis.

‘Tom, I know that you and your father have had a difficult relationship for over twenty years. I want you to think very seriously about what it would mean to let that quarrel go to the grave with him. I know that he can be a very hard man to love, but I also know that deep in his heart he would want to be reconciled to his oldest son before he dies. He is a stubborn man; so are you. I hope the two of you can let go of your stubbornness and realize what’s most important.

‘I know that Emma will be finishing Grade 12 this year and she has plans for university. However, we do have universities in England, and if you could see your way to moving back here, even if only for a year or two, it would mean a great deal to me and, I know, to your father as well.

‘Think about it, my dear son. Give my love to my granddaughter, and keep lots for yourself as well.

‘Your Mum’.

I glanced at my watch; six hours’ difference meant that it would be eleven-thirty in England. It was too late to call now; it would have to wait until tomorrow.

I opened the back door and stepped out into our yard, my coffee steaming in the frigid air. I stood outside for a few minutes, breathing deeply and thinking about my father. Then I went back inside and called Joe Reimer.

Joe was Kelly’s older brother; he was our local vet, and he was also my closest friend in our little town. He was tall and wiry, with broad shoulders, graying blond hair and a crooked nose. We met that evening at the Meadowvale Beanery, a small coffee shop opened recently on the main street as an alternative to the various greasy spoon joints on the highway. It had wooden tables and chairs, shelves with bags of flavoured coffee and tea for sale, and paintings of old grain elevators on the walls. It had quickly become a popular spot with some of the younger people in town, although most of the older folk continued to favour the two local truck stops.

When Joe and I arrived that evening the place was about half full; we exchanged greetings and nods with the other customers as we waited at the counter for the owner, Brenda Nikkel, to pour our coffee into large brown earthenware mugs. We took our seats across from each other at a small corner table beside a window. Joe took a sip of his coffee, cradled it in his hands, and looked at me expectantly. “So, what’s on your mind?”

“I had a letter from my Mum today. My Dad’s been diagnosed with cancer”.

He raised an eyebrow in response. “She didn’t call you?”

“Mum’s funny that way; that sort of news needs the dignity of a letter”.

“I see. Is it bad?”

“Very bad. They’re giving him two years at the most, probably less”.

“I’m sorry, Tom”.

I hesitated for a moment, and then said, “It’s not as if he and I are especially close…”

“No, but he’s still your father”.

“Yes”.

“Do you know how far along it is? Is he in pain, or losing weight, or that sort of stuff?”

“I haven’t talked to anyone else about it yet, so I don’t know. By the time I read my Mum’s letter it was too late to call England. I’ll call her in the morning and ask about that kind of stuff”.

“Might not hurt to call Becca, too”.

“Yes – that’s a good idea”. Becca was my younger sister; she was a medical doctor and lived not far from my parents.

He sat back in his chair and looked me in the eye. “So – how are you doing with this? Mixed feelings?”

“All over the map. Sorry for him, although God knows it’s hard for me to muster any amount of affection for him after all that’s passed between us”.

“I know”.

“But that just makes me feel guilty, too; he is my father, despite everything, and I ought to be able to feel something for him. I should have made more of an effort to build bridges with him”.

“He’s never been an easy father for you to love”.

 “No”.

“So, are you going to go for a visit?”

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about”. I paused for a moment, looked across at him, and said, “My mother wants me to come home”.

“For a visit?”

“No – she wants me to move back to England for the next couple of years, so that I can be close to my Dad”.

I saw the surprise flash across his face. “I see”, he replied.

“What do you think?”

“More importantly, what do you think?”

I shrugged; “I think it would be very difficult”.

“Would it?”

“Well, Emma’s seventeen, and it’s not a good time for her to be moving to a foreign country. She’s already got her application in to go to Saskatoon in the Fall”.

“But it wouldn’t really be right to call it a ‘foreign country’, would it? You’re English, and Emma’s been to England before, and she likes it. In fact, she’s quite an Anglophile, I would say”.

I smiled; “I guess that’s right. Still, visiting is different from moving over there”.

“Have you talked to her about this?”

“Not yet; I wanted to discuss it with you first”.

“It’s what – six years since we were all over there?”

“Yeah, and you saw how tense things were between Dad and me”.

“I did, but that wasn’t the whole story, was it? You enjoyed being back in Oxfordshire, and you loved being with Becca, and Owen and his family. Emma had a pretty good time travelling around and seeing the sights, too”.

“But I only lasted a week at Mum and Dad’s, didn’t I? And anyway, Emma was only eleven then. Since then she’s gone through the death of her mother; that’s got to make it more difficult for her to adapt to new situations”.

He frowned; “But you wouldn’t plan to stay at your parents’ place anyway, would you? After all, there’s no guarantee you’d be able to get a job close by”.

“No guarantee I’d be able to get a job at all”.

“That’s true, although I’d think that a person with over twenty years’ teaching experience might prove quite employable”.

“The curriculum’s different; it would take me a long time to catch up”.

He laughed and said, “Are you purposely dragging out every possible difficulty for me, Tom?”

I shrugged my shoulders again; “Do you think I should go?”

He was silent again, drinking his coffee, tracing circles in the spilled water on the table between us.

“What reason could I possibly have for giving up everything that Em and I have here?” I asked.

He put his cup down, sat back in his seat and looked at me. “Well”, he said, “Let me put it this way: would you like your Dad to die while there’s still this unhealed rift between the two of you? If that were to happen, you might end up regretting it for the rest of your life”.

“My Dad doesn’t want any kind of relationship with me. He and I have never understood each other; I’ve never come up to his expectations, and he’s made no secret of what he thinks of me and my way of life”.

“Agreed. Nonetheless, things can change. An awareness of mortality can change them”.

“Never. That man’s the most stubborn human being ever born on God’s green earth”.

“A stubbornness he seems to have passed on to his son”.

The tension flickered suddenly between us, and I glared angrily at him. “Oh, no!” I said, shaking my head vigorously; “You will not accuse me of being my father’s son!”

He raised his eyebrows; “You are your father’s son, Tom; you might not like that fact, but you can’t undo it”.

“You know what I mean”.

“And you know what I mean, too”.

For a moment neither of us said anything; we continued to look at each other while the quiet coffee shop chatter went on around us. Eventually he picked up his mug, took another sip of coffee, put it down on the table again and said, “Look, please don’t think I want you and Em to leave. You and I have been friends for twenty years, Kelly was my sister, and our kids are like siblings. I sure don’t want any of that to end”.

“Neither do I”.

“But there’s a bigger picture here, isn’t there?” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table between us. “Making things right with your Dad before he dies would be a pretty important thing to attempt, I think. And I would guess that you won’t be able to do that in a month’s holiday over there”.

“No – two years might not be long enough”.

“Well, that part’s not under your control, is it? But the way you act toward your Dad is under your control”.

It was my turn to look away; I drank some coffee, looking out of the window at the headlights of the cars and trucks cruising by on the main street. A few tables down from us, a woman’s laugh rose above the general hum of conversation. Joe was still silent, looking at me steadily.

“I’m not sure I can do it”, I said.

“It would be very hard, I know”.

“It’s not just my father, you know, although that’s bad enough. It’s the thought of leaving here. This is our home”.

“Of course it is. You have a lot of good friends and family here, and we’d all miss you very much if you left. But you have friends and family in England too, don’t you?”

“Yes, that’s true”, I admitted.

“Owen Foster’s your oldest friend. And then there’s Becca; she comes to visit every year, and you always enjoy each other’s company, and of course she and Emma have their own special thing going”.

“True enough”, I conceded; “I think you’ve made your point”.

“Actually, I haven’t quite finished making my point yet”.

I grinned; “You’ve got a lot to say for yourself this evening!”

He laughed softly. “I was just thinking about how you often talk fondly of England, despite your messy relationship with your Dad. You love the countryside and the sense of history; you love English literature. And a lot of your stories about growing up are good stories; you liked your home town, you enjoyed your schools and your time at Oxford, and your friendships there run very deep”.

“That’s true”.

“Well then, perhaps this doesn’t have to be as tough as you think; there might be all kinds of good things about it, too”.

I looked down at the table, my mind racing, and once again we were silent for a few minutes as I thought things through. Eventually I looked up again. “I guess the first thing I should do is go home and talk this over with Em”, I said.

“I think that would be a good idea”.

When I got back to our house Emma was curled up on the couch 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. I stood in the doorway and looked at my daughter for a minute, noticing the way her hair fell on her faded denim shirt, remembering the year I had met her mother. Then she turned and smiled at me. “Did you have a good visit with Uncle Joe?” she asked in her soft-spoken voice.

“Pretty good”. I hung my coat up in the closet, came into the living room and sat down in my easy chair across from her. “What are you reading?”

“Middlemarch. I really like it”.

“Me too; I wish I could use it as a set book. Eliot’s one of my favourite authors”.

“Yeah, I saw a few others by her on your shelf where I found this one; are they all this good?”

“Some of them are, anyway”.

“I’ll have to read the others, but I think this one’s going to keep me going for a while”.

“Yeah, they’re not short, are they?”

“That’s for sure! So, are you full of coffee?”

“I don’t think I’ll have any more tonight, if that’s what you mean”. I hesitated, looked across at her, and said, “Listen, I went out to talk to Joe about something specific, and now I need to talk to you about it too”.

“What is it, Dad?”

“How would you feel about putting your university plans on hold for a couple of years and moving to England with me?”

“To England?” she exclaimed; “Are you serious?”

“Yes”.

She frowned; “Is something wrong?”

“Yes; I’ve had a letter from your Grandma. Grandpa’s very ill”.

“Oh no!”

“Yes, he’s got cancer, and the doctors are giving him two years to live, at the most”.

“What sort of cancer?”

“Lymphoma”. I got up from my chair, went out to the kitchen, and picked up the letter from the counter where I had left it. Coming back into the living room, I offered it to Emma; “Read it if you like”, I said.

She took the letter from me, and I watched as she read it. When she was done, she looked across at me with a thoughtful look on her face; “I wonder what Grandpa thinks of this idea?” she mused.

“That’s a very good question; I don’t know if Mum’s talked to him about it”.

“You’ve never really told me the story of this feud between the two of you, Dad”.

I shook my head slowly; “I’m not sure I’m ready to yet”.

“Okay. But it goes back a long time, doesn’t it?”

“Yes”.

“Do you think it can be fixed?”

“I don’t honestly know, Em”.

“But you think it would be a good idea to try to fix it?”

“Well, I certainly think I ought to try, if I can. I must admit I don’t relish the thought, though”.

“Because of all the history?”

“Well, there’s that. But the whole idea of picking up and leaving, after all these years…”

“Yeah, that’s a little daunting, isn’t it?”

“What about you; how do you feel about it?”

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. “Free board and lodging in England for two years, while you slave away as a teacher and I get to be a tourist?” she said with a grin; “I could live 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 Grandma’s 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, too; I’m finishing Grade 12 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; that’s how long his doctors give him, on the outside”.

“Have you talked to Becca?”

“Not yet; by the time I picked up the mail it was after midnight in the UK”.

“Of course”. She gave a little frown; “So you’d look for a job over there, would you, Dad?”

“A teaching job, yes – as close to the Oxford area as I could get. Not that it would be easy to move there; Oxford’s one of the most expensive places to live in England”.

“So you’d sell the house here and buy something over there?”

“Selling the house wouldn’t be my first choice, but I think I might have to do it”.

She shook her head; “I don’t think I’d like that”.

“I know, but it might be unavoidable”.

She gave me a sideways glance; “Are you sure you’re only thinking in terms of two years? Sounds to me like this might be a little more permanent than that”.

“I’m not intending it to be permanent, Em. That doesn’t mean that unforeseen circumstances might not surprise me”.

She nodded; “Okay, I understand”.

“So there’s got to be a down side, right, from your point of view?”

“Oh yeah”, she agreed. “Putting off my nursing training; leaving home and friends, leaving Jake and Jenna, and Michael and Rachel”.

“Especially since you were planning on boarding with Jake and Jenna in Saskatoon”. Jake and Jenna, Michael and Rachel were Emma’s cousins; Jake and Jenna were the children of Joe and his wife Ellie, and Michael and Rachel were the children of Kelly’s younger sister Krista and her husband Steve Janzen, who worked for Parks Canada in Prince Albert National Park.

Emma nodded thoughtfully; “That was the plan”, she agreed. “I’d be sorry to miss out on that”.

“I’d be sorry for you to miss out on it, too”.

For a few minutes she said nothing; she reread my mother’s letter, gave a little frown, and stared into the fireplace. Eventually she said, “I need to think about this some more, Dad”.

“Okay”.

“I’m going to go to bed now, if that’s okay?”

I looked at my watch; it was just after nine o’clock. “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 shocks and 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 my daughter would be sitting on her bed, thinking and writing and praying, and I probably wouldn’t see her now until the next morning.

The next day was a Saturday; I got up at around eight, showered and dressed and went for a two-mile walk as I usually did in the mornings. The storm had eased off, the eastern sky was just beginning to get light, and the temperature was hovering at around minus twenty.

Our town of Meadowvale was situated on a main highway about ninety miles northeast of Saskatoon. The highway ran just east of the town, with the railway line running parallel to it; that was where the concrete grain terminals and the gas stations and highway restaurants were located. Emma and I lived on the northwest corner of town; west of us, the street soon became a gravel highway running out into the country. A block east of our house, a narrow creek cut a gully across the town from north to south, before bending around to the east, flowing under bridges for the railway line and the highway, and emptying into Roberts Lake southeast of the community. I followed the trail along the river until it joined the highway, and then I came back into town on one of the main north-south avenues. Trucks were already beginning to move on the streets as people made their way to their favourite restaurants for their Saturday morning coffee. I had lived in Meadowvale for over twenty years and I knew all the drivers; most of them exchanged cheery waves with me as they passed me on the road, bundled up in my parka.

When I got back to the house I made a pot of tea and dropped a couple of slices of bread into the toaster. I was just spreading peanut butter on the toast when I heard Emma coming into the kitchen behind me. I put the knife down, turned and smiled at her. She was wearing her old bathrobe; she had not yet combed her hair, and the redness around her eyes told me that it had not been an easy night for her. I put my arms around her; we held each other tight for a long time, and I kissed her gently on the top of her head. “Good morning, Em”, I said.

“Good morning, Dad”.

 “Want some toast?”

“Sure”.

“Tea?”

“Okay”.

I poured tea into a mug and handed it to her. I pushed the plate of toast and peanut butter over to her, popped a couple more slices of bread into the toaster for myself, and sat down with her at the kitchen table. “You okay?” I asked.

“Oh yeah”.

“Bad night?”

“Not bad, especially, but I had a lot of thinking to do, and it kind of kept me awake”.

“Want to talk some more about it?”

She inclined her head a little, thought for a moment, and said, “After I have breakfast and take a shower”.

“Fair enough”.

So we ate and drank quietly, chatting about nothing in particular; she had a second cup of tea, then excused herself and went off to take her shower. While she was in the bathroom I picked up the phone and called my mother in England.

“Hi, Mum”, I said when she answered the phone; “It’s me”.

“Hello, Tom; how are you?”

“Pretty good. I got your letter yesterday. How’s Dad?”

“Not very well today. He’s lying down for a rest right now”.

“He gets tired easily, I expect?”

“Very easily, yes”.

“Is he in pain?”

“Not a lot of pain, no. It’s mainly the tiredness, the dizziness, that sort of thing”.

“Is he in treatment yet?”

“Not yet; they’re still doing tests”.

“Can you tell me any more about his diagnosis?”

“Not really. As I told you in the letter, the cancer is in his lymph nodes, and it seems to have established itself all over his system. The specialist isn’t saying there’s no hope at all, but he’s saying the most likely scenario is eighteen to twenty-four months”.

“I see. I’m sorry, Mum; are you okay?”

I heard her hesitate for a moment before replying; “Well, your father’s dying, and I don’t like the fact. I know you know what that feels like”.

I felt the lines of sympathy flickering between us; “Yes, I do”, I said.

“Do you think you’ll be coming over?”

“I need to think about it a little more”, I replied. “Last night I broached the subject of moving with Emma, and while she had some hesitations about it, she was happy about some parts of it too. But of course, she’s already got her application in to Saskatoon, and by now it’s probably too late to apply to British universities for the Fall term; students coming from overseas usually have to get their applications in by the end of November”.

“I see”.

“Emma needs to take her time about this stuff, Mum, and to be honest, I do too. It would be a big step for us to sell our house over here and move back to England; the housing market is a lot more expensive and I’ve never taught in the English school system. I need to look into a few things and see what my chances might be; I’m not even sure if the UK is hiring teachers from overseas right now”.

“You sound as if you’re doubtful about the whole idea”.

“I wouldn’t say doubtful; I just don’t want to promise what I can’t deliver. I’m definitely going to look into it, and meanwhile, I’ll probably try to make a quick trip over during Spring break”.

“That would be nice; I’ll wait to hear from you about that. I’m sorry your father’s sleeping; it might have been good for you to talk to him”.

“Yes. Give him my best, please”.

“I will. Give my love to Emma”.

“Right”. I stopped, hesitated, and said, “I love you, Mum”.

She was quiet for a moment, and then I heard her whisper, “I love you, too, Tom. ‘Bye for now”.

Putting the telephone down, I stood up, went out to the kitchen and opened the blinds over the sink to let in the morning sunshine. I turned and looked at the photograph of Kelly, Emma, and me; I remembered that terrible last year of Kelly’s life, when she was fighting her own final battle with cancer, and I breathed a quick prayer for my mother.

Emma emerged a few minutes later, wearing jeans and a thick sweater, her hair still damp from the shower. “Do you want to go up to the recreation area and go snowshoeing?” she asked.

“When?”

“Now. It looks like a nice morning out there”.

“Not ready to talk yet, eh?”

“More ready to walk; talking might follow”.

“Okay then; I’ll make a thermos of coffee, and you take the hair dryer to your hair. I don’t want you going out at minus twenty with your hair still wet”.

“Okay”.

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; Myers Lake itself was a great place for waterfowl in the summer time, and there were miles of walking trails snaking through the bush and along the shores of the lake. Emma enjoyed cross-country skiing very much, and in her early teens she had really taken to snowshoeing as well. I myself had been a bird watcher since my childhood, and in summer or in winter I enjoyed getting out of doors to see what I could see.

There were no other vehicles in the tiny parking lot when we arrived. We got out of the truck, and I pulled on a backpack holding a thermos flask, a couple of mugs, and some snacks to keep us going on the trail. By now it was about ten-thirty in the morning; the sky was still a clear and brilliant blue, and I guessed that the temperature had dipped a couple of degrees since earlier on. We lifted our snowshoes from the back of the truck and bent to strap them on. I slung my binoculars around my neck, grinned at my daughter, 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. Emma loved to break trail like this; she led us out along the edge of the lake, stopping every few minutes to get her breath, look around, and decide which direction to take. We didn’t say very much to each other. I was keeping my eye out for winter birds, and sure enough, in the first hour I saw chickadees, a downy woodpecker, a little nuthatch, and of course several ravens soaring noisily in the sky above us. When I stopped to raise my binoculars to my eyes I didn’t bother to call out to Emma; I knew she was keeping an eye out for me as I followed her trail, and sooner or later she would stop and wait. I had a pretty good idea where she was going by now.

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 Emma 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”.

“Thanks for waiting, Dad”.

“That’s fine”.

 “So, you’d need to apply for jobs, and then interview for them?”

“I’m assuming I’d need to have some sort of interview, though I don’t know if it would be by phone or in person. But I’m thinking I should probably go over to the UK for spring break anyway, just to see how my Dad is doing, so that might be a good time to interview if that was possible”.

“What do you think your chances would be?”

“I’m really not sure, Em. I was talking to Grandma while you were in the shower, and I told her that I don’t even know whether UK schools are hiring from overseas right now. I’ve got a lot of research to do”.

“How’s Grandma doing?”

“Well, she’s upset, of course”.

“Any more word on Grandpa?”

“Not really; she said he’s tired and he gets dizzy, but he’s not in much pain”.

We were quiet for a few minutes, watching a raven soar over the trees on the other side of the creek. Then she said, “You’ve always mentioned that the cost of living is higher over there”.

“Yes, it is”.

“That would be hard for us if we had to buy a car, furniture, that sort of stuff”.

“Yes, and shipping furniture would be expensive, too. I’d hate to leave all our stuff behind and buy fresh, though; I’d like to have a few familiar things around us”.

“Me too. Can we afford this, Dad?”

“It would be tight, but I think we could manage it”.

“You’d be happy to see Owen and Lorraine again and live close to them, wouldn’t you?”

“I would”.

“And Becca”.

“Becca too”.

“I did a bit of research online about nursing training in the UK”.

“Ah, so that’s what you were doing in your room last night”.

“One of the things I was doing. Oxford Brookes University has a good program”.

“Do they?”

“Pretty good. Pretty pricey, too”.

“That goes for all universities over there. Of course, a lot of students get good grants from local education authorities”.

“I probably wouldn’t get one of those”.

“Probably not”.

She gave me a sideways glance; “There’s a lot to think about, isn’t there, Dad?”

“There is”.

“And how about this reconciliation thing? Do you think it would work? Haven’t you tried to do something about it before?”

“Well, I don’t know if I can really say that I have. I wish I could say that, but if I’m honest, I’d have to admit that I’ve mostly avoided the issue”.

“So do you think moving over would work?”

“I really don’t know. All I can do is try, I guess”.

“What did Uncle Joe say when you talked to him?”

“He said he thought if I didn’t do it, I’d feel bad about it for the rest of my life”.

“And do you think he’s right?”

“I think he probably is, yes”.

She nodded, looking suddenly older than her seventeen years. “So I guess you have to decide whether what you want to do can be done in two years, right?”

“Right, and also whether it’s important enough to uproot you from your friends and family over here, and plunge you into a strange and very expensive education system”.

“I’d be too late now to apply to a British university in time for the Fall term, wouldn’t I?”

“I think you would, yes”.

“Okay, here’s a thought; would you consider leaving me in Saskatoon and moving to England by yourself?”

I had been afraid that she would suggest this, and my heart sank. I had been dreading the thought of her moving an hour and a half’s drive away to Saskatoon in the Fall. The thought of being separated from her by most of the North American continent and the breadth of the Atlantic Ocean was too overwhelming for me to even contemplate. However, I knew that it was a fair question.

“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 miss you dreadfully. Still, you would have to decide whether or not that would be the best course of action. 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”.

“Perhaps if I moved to England with you, I’d be able to do some tourist stuff in the Fall and then start university in January”.

“That’s possible. It’s also possible that you’d be able to find work for a while doing the same kind of thing you’ve been doing at the Lodge here”.

She was quiet for a moment, gazing out over the lake. Then she said, “Well, like I said last night, there are lots of good things about it. For me, it would be more of an adventure, and it wouldn’t have to be an irrevocable move. But for you, Dad…”

“I know”.

“You’d look for a job in Oxford, would you?”

“Well, the Oxford area, anyway – somewhere within striking distance of Northwood”.

“How soon do we have to make our minds up about this?”

“Well, if I’m going to get a job in the Fall, I should probably start making inquiries pretty soon”.

“But you can make inquiries without actually putting in applications, right?”

“For a little while, yes”.

“Can you give me a week? I need to think about this some more”.

“Okay; I can give you a week”.

“Jake’s back in town for twenty four hours this afternoon; can I talk to him and Jenna about this?”

“Sure. Actually, I’ll probably talk to Joe’s mom and dad about it as well”.

“Okay. Thanks, Dad”.

“For what?”

“For being patient with me”. She reached across and put her hand on mine; “This whole thing isn’t easy for you, is it?”

“No, it sure isn’t”.

“Are you going to call Becca?”

“Yes, I think I’ll do that as soon as we get home”.

“Good idea”. She slid off the table, stretched and straightened up. “I’m getting a little cold; I think we should move on”.

“Okay”.

Link to Chapter Two.