When I finished ‘Meadowvale’ it turned out that there were some inconsistencies with ‘A Time to Mend’ (which I wrote first, over ten years ago, even though chronologically it comes after ‘Meadowvale’). So – I’m having another go at ‘A Time to Mend’ to bring it back in sync with ‘Meadowvale’. Here’s the third chapter.
I landed at Heathrow Airport on Easter Sunday in the early afternoon. Becca was waiting for me in the arrivals lounge, standing on the edge of the crowd and waving furiously in my direction; twelve years my junior and slightly shorter than me, she was dressed casually in jeans and a light spring jacket, her dark hair hanging loose to her shoulders. I walked over to her, and she greeted me with a warm hug and a kiss; “Hello, you!” she said.
“Happy Easter, Becs”.
“Same to you. You look tired; here, give me your bag. How’s Emma?”
“She’s fine; she drove me to the airport yesterday”.
“Oh right – I keep forgetting she’s got a driving license now!”
“I know; doesn’t seem that long since she was a baby, does it?”
“No”. She looked up at me with a sympathetic grin; “You really do look wiped out there, Tommy! Do you want to pick up a coffee for the road?”
“That would be great”.
“Come on, then – there’s a coffee shop in the corner over there”.
We lined up for a few minutes to get our coffees, and then made our way out of the terminal building into the spring sunshine and across to the multi-story car park. We took an elevator to the top level, where we found Becca’s little Renault squeezed between two bigger cars; she opened the doors, threw my bag in the back and said, “In you get, then”.
I slipped into the car beside her, and she leaned over and gave me another kiss on the cheek. “Oh”, she said, “before I forget – Owen told me to remind you to ring him some time this evening; they’re not leaving until first thing in the morning”.
“Right – he mentioned that”. My old friend Owen Foster, who had been a doctor in Headington for many years, was a senior partner at the medical practice where Becca worked. I had hoped to get a chance to see him while I was in England, but it had turned out that he and his family were going to France for a few days during the Easter holidays.
Becca started the car, backed out of her parking spot, and drove down toward the exit ramp. I took a sip of my coffee; “Any news about dad?”
She shrugged; “He’s lost a lot of weight and he gets tired quickly, but none of that’s especially new”.
“When’s his next chemo treatment?”
“Tuesday; this will be his third”.
“How’s it going?”
“I think he’s finding it harder than he expected – especially the nausea”.
“I expect he just takes himself off to his room when he’s feeling sick, doesn’t he?”
“Yeah; he lets Mum help him, but I’m not allowed anywhere near him when he’s like that, and I’m sure no one else is either”.
“No trouble with infections so far?”
“No, but they’re going to have to be very careful about that; it’s harder on older people. And there’s another problem too – he’s in denial”. She pulled the car up to the ticket machine, paid for her parking and then pulled out onto Cromer Road. “He’s still trying to downplay it all”, she continued; “I’ve heard him say several times that he’s just got to get through the chemo and then he’ll be fine”. She shrugged; “I don’t know if he really believes that, but it’s the line he takes when he’s talking to anyone”.
“That’s got to be hard for her”.
“I would think so”. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her frown thoughtfully. “Did you and Kelly talk honestly about her cancer, Tommy? Right from the start?”
“We did the second time. The first time she ignored the symptoms for a while”.
“Right – I remember that”.
“She was worried, but she didn’t want to tell me or anyone else for fear she’d have to leave Emma and go into hospital. But the second time around we’d learned our lesson; we were honest with each other from day one”.
“It just took you a bit longer to tell everyone else”.
I nodded; it had been a sore point between us at the time. “She didn’t want to tell a lot of other people until she was sure of the diagnosis”.
“I get it, Tommy, I really do. I didn’t at the time, but I do now”. She reached across suddenly and squeezed my hand. “I’m sorry; let’s change the subject, shall we?”
I glanced at her; “You okay?”
She nodded; “I am. It’s just that every now and again…”
For a moment neither of us spoke; I sipped at my coffee, and she steered the car down through the tunnel under the runway and out the other side, heading north toward the M4. I watched as the cars sped by in both directions, and then I said, “I guess Dad doesn’t go into the office anymore?”
“No, and Rick’s glad about that; ever since Dad retired Rick’s been wishing he would leave him alone”. My younger brother had followed the career path my father had wanted for me; he was now a senior partner at my father’s old law firm.
“Dad’s never found it easy to let other people run their own lives, has he?” I said.
“I’m afraid not; that’s one of the constants you can rely on! But on a happier subject – two interviews this week?”
“Yes – Headington and Cowley. I’ve already done phone interviews for Reading and High Wycombe”.
“That one in Headington – isn’t that where you did your first student placement?”
“Yes. It seems like a long time ago now”.
“You’re such an old man, Tommy!”
“I know; I get regular reminders of the fact from Emma!”.
“It must be a bit strange to think about going back there”.
“A little. It was a reasonably good experience, but of course a lot will have changed in twenty-two years”.
“I’ll be hoping for that one or Cowley; it would be nice if you were close by”. She reached over and put her hand on mine. “How are you feeling about this move? Are you sad?”
“I am. I don’t think I really believed it until I started getting involved in the interview process, but now it’s starting to sink in. I know nothing’s certain yet, and I know if I’m successful there’ll be lots of good things about living in the U.K. again, but to be honest, at the moment I’m strongly tempted to intentionally mess up the interviews”.
“I know”, she said quietly, “and I understand”.
“It’s not that I wouldn’t be glad to be closer to you and Mum, of course”.
“I know. What about Emma; how’s she feeling?”
“She’s excited about being here for a longer period of time. She likes the idea of getting a closer look at her English roots, and she wants to be able to spend some time with Mum and Dad too. But there’s another part of her that’s dreading the thought of leaving Meadowvale”.
“She’s relieved that we’re not planning to sell the house; it gives us a tangible link with home”.
“Right. And then there’s her nursing training”.
“She still wants to do that, whether it’s here or back home”.
“I was talking to her about that last week. She really likes volunteering at the special care home, doesn’t she?”.
“She does; I could easily see her making a career in geriatric nursing. But to be honest I think she could do any kind of nursing she wanted”.
“Well, there’ll always be a need for nurses in England. Even if the move here turned out to be permanent, she’d probably never be short of a job”.
“We haven’t talked about making a permanent move, Becs”.
“I understand; one day at a time”.
- * * * * *
I thought of Northwood as my childhood home, but in fact we had moved there when I was eleven. My earlier years had been spent in the Oxford suburb of Summertown, but I had actually preserved few links with the place of my birth and early childhood. It was in Northwood that I had formed my friendship with Owen; it was Northwood and the surrounding countryside that he and I had explored as teenagers; it was in Northwood that we had learned to play guitar together and had shared some of the most formative conversations of my early life. It was true that the emotional dynamics of my home life there had been complicated, but I still had a deep sense of connection with the village itself and the countryside around it.
It was a community of about two thousand people, situated in the Thames Valley just north of the town of Wallingford. It was strangely elongated; the southern area was built beside the river, but the village narrowed around the main street as it ran north-east, and then widened out again into a northern part which was almost a second community. The northern part, where my parents lived, was actually the original village of Northwood; it had expanded toward the river in the eighteenth century when the bridge across the Thames was built, with the Kingfisher Inn beside it.
We crossed the bridge at around three-thirty, driving north on the high street and passing the old 15th century church on the west side of the village green. We turned east at the church, and I looked around at the street I had once known so well, noticing the absence of a few familiar buildings and the addition of some new ones. About half a mile further on, we turned right onto a long private driveway running down past a copse of ancient elm trees; at the end of the driveway loomed the familiar bulk of my parents’ home. Built in the late eighteenth century, it was a large two-storey grey stone house with an old courtyard and stable complex off to one side, most of it now converted into garage space. Behind the house there was an apple orchard, a wood, and a small lake.
Becca pulled the car up by the front door and turned off the engine. “Well, here we are”, she said, “and here’s Mum; she must have been watching at the window”.
I looked up and saw my mother emerging from the front door; she had put on a wool cardigan before coming outside to greet us, and I noticed immediately how tired she looked, and how white her hair had turned since I had last seen her at Kelly’s funeral. I opened the car door and got out to meet her; “Hello, Mum”, I said.
“Hello, Tom; welcome home”.
I put my arms around her to give her a hug; “Happy Easter”.
“Happy Easter to you, too”.
Becca was already lifting my bag out of the trunk of the car; she kissed my mother on the cheek and asked, “How’s Dad today?”
“Alright this afternoon; he had a good nap earlier on. Shall we go inside?”
We followed her up the steps and through the doorway into the hall. The well-remembered spiral staircase swept up on our left; I took in at a glance the polished wood floor, the antique telephone table, the ornate wallpaper. My mother was already leading the way into the large living room; it was built on the southwest corner of the house, with bay windows on the two outside walls providing plenty of light. As we entered, my father rose slowly out of one of the armchairs by the fireplace, and as I crossed the room toward him he held out his hand. “So you finally came home again”, he said; “It took you long enough”.
His voice was not as strong as I remembered. He had always been tall and wiry, but now he seemed gaunt and skeletal, his back a little bent, his face narrow and pale, his few remaining wisps of grey hair combed straight back from his high forehead. The ravages of the deadly disease he was fighting were plain.
“How are you, Dad?” I asked.
“Not dead yet, at any rate”. He greeted Becca, smiling at her as she kissed him on the cheek, and then moved over to the sideboard, asking “What will you have to drink, Tom?”
“Oh, I don’t know – Scotch, I guess”.
He looked at me over his shoulder with a quizzical expression on his face. “Well? Do you want it or not?”
“Sure – yes please”.
“Becca? Dry sherry?”
“Yes please, Dad”.
He poured drinks for everyone and passed them around; “Sit down”, he said. We found our seats, he and my mother on each side of the hearth, Becca and I side by side on the chesterfield. “So”, my mother asked, “How’s Emma? Did you bring us some new pictures?”
“I did”. I reached into the inside pocket of my jacket, brought out my photographs and passed them to my mother.
“Her hair’s getting long again”, my mother observed as she looked over the pictures one by one and passed them to my father.
“Well, it’s been over two years now”. Emma had shaved her head along with her mother when Kelly’s hair had started to fall out from chemotherapy. Kelly had protested, but Emma had insisted and I had sided with her, knowing how badly she needed to feel she was doing something to show solidarity with her mum.
“Are these recent?” my mother asked.
“Just a month ago”.
“She looks more like Kelly all the time”.
“That’s what I always think”, Becca replied softly.
“Good heavens!” my mother exclaimed, pointing at one of the photographs; “Is that Jenna?”
“Yes it is”.
“She’s certainly shot up in the last couple of years, hasn’t she? Look at this, Frank”.
My father glanced at the photographs as she handed them to him. “She takes after her mother too, doesn’t she?” he said.
“She does”, I agreed, “and Jake’s more like his dad”.
“A month ago, you say? Plenty of snow still, at that time”.
“You never can tell how long it’ll stay”.
He looked at me with a bemused expression on his face; “You’ve certainly picked up the accent over the years”.
“It comes and goes; in Meadowvale they still think I sound English”.
He handed the pictures back to my mother; “Two interviews this week, then?” he asked.
“Yes, one at Gypsy Lane School in Headington, and one in Cowley; I’ve already done two by phone”.
“Headington or Cowley would be nice”, said my mother.
“You could live here”, my father suggested.
“I could, or I could start out here and then look for a place of my own once I get my feet on the ground”.
“Don’t be ridiculous – prices are far too high around here; on your salary you’d never be able to afford it. With what you could get from selling a house in Saskatchewan you’d be in no position to buy; living here would be the only reasonable thing to do”.
“I’m not thinking of selling or buying; I’d be making enough on a teacher’s salary to be able to afford to rent a small house, and I can supplement that with the money I make on renting out our place back home”.
He shook his head. “Renting is never a good idea; you’re paying out money and getting nothing in return. If you’re not going to buy, you’d be far better to stay here”.
“If I get a job nearby, I’ll certainly think about it”.
There was an awkward silence for a moment, and then Becca spoke. “Are Rick and his family still coming for supper?”
My mother nodded; “I hope you don’t mind, Tom? I thought it would be nice for us to have a family gathering, with it being a holiday today”.
“Of course not. I wouldn’t mind catching a nap before they come, though; it was a long trip, and as you know I’m not especially good at sleeping on planes”.
“That would be fine; I’ve got your old room made up for you”.
“Maybe after I’m done this drink I’ll go up and get settled in”.
- * * * * *
A few minutes later I excused myself, picked up my bag in the hall and climbed wearily up the spiral staircase. As I pushed open the door to my old room I was confronted with a world of memory, not so much from my childhood years as from the times that Kelly and I had stayed in this room together; we had come to Northwood three times over the years as a married couple, twice in summer and once for a shorter period at Christmas. I put my bag down on the bed and walked over to the window, looking out over the lawn with the brick wall of the orchard off to the left; she and I had stood side by side at this same window many times during our last visit in the summer of 1997, and for a brief moment the sense of her presence was so strong that I almost felt I could reach out and put my arm around her.
I heard a quiet knock on the door, and as I turned Becca slipped into the room. She came over and put her hand on my arm; “I just came up to make sure you were okay”.
“Thank you; I’m fine”.
She kissed me gently on the cheek, smiled at me, and said, “Are you sure?”
“Yes. But you’re a good woman, Becca Masefield”.
She shook her head; “I don’t know about that”.
I went over to the bed and began to unpack my bag; “Are you working tomorrow?”
“No, I don’t start again until Tuesday, and I’m not on call either; I did my bit Good Friday and yesterday”.
“Are you staying out here, then?”
“Just tonight; I’m going home tomorrow after supper”.
“Maybe some time tomorrow we could wander down to the Kingfisher for a pint?”
“I’d like that”. She smiled at me; “Okay, I’m going to leave you to rest now”.
“I just need half an hour with my head down on my pillow; after that I’ll come down and help you and Mum with supper, or do whatever you like”.
“Alright, then, sleepyhead”, she said with a mischievous grin; “See you in a bit”.
- * * * * *
My brother and his family arrived just before six; we were sitting in the living room again when we heard the sound of the car pulling up to the front of the house. My mother went out to greet them, and a moment later we all stood up as they entered the room. Rick had let his hair grow a little since the last time I had seen him; it was beginning to turn grey, and his face seemed pale and thin, but he gave me a warm smile as he shook my hand; “Welcome home”, he said.
“Thanks; it’s good to see you”.
I turned to greet his family. His wife Alyson was petite, with dark hair and a pleasant Scottish accent, dressed quietly in jeans and a sweater; she worked as a researcher for a wildlife conservation unit in Oxford. They had brought their three children with them; Eric was sixteen, Sarah fourteen, and Anna eleven. None of the children knew me well; they had never visited us in Canada, and even on our last trip to England we had not seen very much of them. Eric was tall and thin like his father, while the girls tended to take after Alyson.
My mother and Becca moved some extra chairs into the semi-circle around the hearth, and my father handed drinks around. When we were all sitting down my mother glanced at me with a smile; “Tom’s got some lovely photographs of Emma”, she said.
So my pictures made the rounds again. Anna, glancing at one that had been taken at the old Reimer farm a couple of weeks ago, said, “I didn’t know she rode horses”.
“She’s been riding since she was a little girl”, I replied.
“Was this taken at a riding school?”
“No, it’s the old farm where Emma’s grandpa grew up. We still have relatives out there”.
“So this is one of their horses she’s riding?”
Sarah spoke in a quiet voice; “How old is she now?”
“She turned seventeen in December”.
“Is she doing A-levels or something?”
“She’ll be finishing Grade Twelve in June, which is like getting A-levels where we live”.
“Will she be going to uni?”
“What does she want to do?”
“She wants to be a nurse”.
“What else does she like to do?” Anna asked.
“She likes outdoor things – hiking and canoeing and cross-country skiing. She reads a lot too, and she plays guitar”.
My brother gave me a wry grin; “Chip off the old block”.
Alyson glanced at her son; “Eric started to play guitar a couple of years ago”.
“I’m not very good yet”, Eric replied with a shrug of his shoulders.
“Uncle Tom’s been playing since he was a teenager”, said Rick; “I expect he’s got a guitar hiding around here somewhere”.
“Actually, no”, I replied; “I’m only here for a week, so I left it behind”.
“You surprise me, bro – I thought you were inseparable from that thing!”
“I must admit I don’t often part with it, but it seemed easier not to bring it this time”.
“Do you and Emma play the same kind of music?” asked Sarah.
“Some, but she’s got likes and dislikes of her own too”.
“I should email her; it’s weird that she’s my cousin and I hardly know her”.
“She’d like that; I’ll give you her email address”.
My mother got to her feet; “Well, the food’s almost ready, so Becca and I will go and put it on the table”.
- * * * * *
After supper my brother surprised me by suggesting that we take a walk in the garden together. The evening sun was close to the horizon; the sky had cleared and the temperature was dropping. We skirted the flowerbeds in silence; at the bottom of the garden Rick glanced at me and said, “So you’re really thinking of moving back, then?”
“Not thinking of going into the Law at long last, though?” I saw the mischievous grin on his face.
“No, I’ll leave that to you. How’s it going, by the way?”
“Very well. We’ve got about twenty-five people now, partners and solicitors and so on, and we’ve started to build a rather good name for ourselves nationally”.
“You must be squeezed tight in that office”.
“We actually bought the place next door a couple of years ago so that we could expand, but we really need to move out of the city centre. We could lease a much more functional property down at the Oxford business park, but of course the old man won’t hear of it”.
“I thought Dad was retired?”
“Yes, but until a few months ago he was still coming in two or three times a week; he was constantly interfering with the day-to-day running of the place, not to mention long-term decision-making. We’ve had several opportunities to merge with national firms – which would have been really good for our business – but in his mind Masefield and Marlowe is still an old Oxford chamber and he wants to keep it that way”.
“Does he actually have a say in the matter, though? Surely, if he’s retired…?”
“There are ten partners; all he needs to be able to do is influence six, and of course the majority of them go back to his time. If he wants to make an issue of something it’s not hard for him to get his own way”.
“That must be frustrating”.
“You could say that”.
“I suppose Jack Marlowe’s retired now too?”
“He is, and he’s a lot better at it than the old man; I honestly believe there are days when Dad thinks I haven’t got a clue”.
“He has an enduring habit of trying to control our lives”.
My brother gave a short laugh; “Well put! We’ve got that much in common, haven’t we?”
“I’m afraid so”.
We ambled along in silence for a moment in the fading light, our hands in our pockets, and then he said, “If you move back here we’ll have to invite you over to the house for a meal some time”.
“That would be nice. How long is it now that you’ve been in the new place?”
“A couple of years”.
“I vaguely remember hearing about it after the fact, but of course I was a little preoccupied at the time”.
“I remember last time we were here you were having renovations done on your old place so you could sell it and make some money on it”.
“God, yes! That was a bit of a nightmare, but eventually we got it done. We’ve got a nice property now out at Cumnor Hill: newish house, six bedrooms and a couple of reception rooms, big garden, lots of trees. Good neighbourhood, too”.
“Pretty swanky out there, as I recall”.
He shrugged; “I suppose so. You’ve got to have money to live there but it’s comfortable and the children like it, and I’m not worried about crime or gangs or drugs or student parties or anything like that”.
“I’ll look forward to seeing it”.
He was quiet for a moment as we skirted a line of rose bushes, and then he said, “So what’s made you think of coming back after all these years? I always got the impression you saw the move to Meadowvale as permanent?”
“I’d like have another try at making things right with Dad while I still can”.
He looked at me incredulously; “You want to make up with him? The old man’s not the reconciling sort, you know”.
“I know. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that if there’s even the slightest chance I want to give it a try”.
“You’re serious about this?”
He shook his head in disbelief; “Well, that’s put me in my place. I was sure you were thinking about the will”.
I was astonished; “The will?”
“Yes; Dad’s got a considerable sum of money stashed away, you know”.
“I assumed he’d leave everything to Mum”.
“I’m sure most of it will go to her, but I won’t be surprised if there’s a smaller amount for each of us, too”.
“I can honestly say I hadn’t even thought of that; until you mentioned it, it never even occurred to me”.
“No, I believe you”, he said apologetically, “and now that we’re talking about it I can’t for the life of me imagine how I could have thought such a thing”. He glanced at me with a sheepish grin; “Sorry, bro – I spend far too much time with millionaires and lawyers. Everyone I know thinks money’s what makes the world go around – the more of it the better”.
“Well, I’ve always known that’s the way Dad thinks, so I can’t really hold it against you”.
“But I should have remembered that you don’t think like that; you’re the least worldly person I know”. He laughed softly again. “I think you’re a romantic dreamer, of course; you always have been, but greedy you’re not”.
“Well, I was lucky that my romantic dreams came true – at least for a while”.
He gave me a sideways glance, his face suddenly serious; “I’m really sorry about Kelly”. He shook his head again; “I know I should have written or called or something, but to tell you the honest truth I never know what to say in that sort of situation. What on earth does one say?”
“There’s really nothing to say”.
We strolled along in silence for a couple of minutes, listening to the sound of the birds in the treetops as the sun got close to the horizon. Eventually he spoke again; “So is there a plan?”
“For fixing things with Dad”.
“Not really. Hopefully I can move back here, get a job, visit Mum and Dad and try to be as helpful as I can”.
“Is Emma looking forward to it?”
“I think so; she likes England and she wants to help Mum and Dad if she can. Of course, she’s going to miss Meadowvale”.
“Totally understandable. She’s a good kid, Becca tells me”.
“Yes she is. And your three? They were quiet at the table tonight”.
“They like Mum, but Dad can be a bit intimidating”.
“They’re doing well though, for the most part”.
“Sarah’s growing up fast”.
“Yes she is; turning a few heads already, so I’m told, although of course she’s still only fourteen”.
“She’s got a birthday coming up soon, right?”
“She has”. He grinned at me; “I’m impressed – I’m not much for remembering those kinds of things myself, as you know”.
“Well, I was married to a girl who thought family was really important”.
“Emma must have her admirers too?”
“She had a boyfriend for a while but he broke up with her just after Christmas. She’s known him since she was eleven and they were dating for over a year, so she was pretty sad about it”.
“He was a year ahead of her, and he went away to university”.
“Someone else caught his eye?”
“That’s what I hear. It’s too bad actually; his mum’s a teaching colleague of mine, Mary Stonechild, so it’s been a little awkward”.
We lapsed into silence again for a few minutes, walking slowly along the path. Eventually I said, “Dad doesn’t look well, does he?”
“No. I didn’t notice it right away of course; it came on gradually”. He frowned; “The truth is, I don’t really understand all of it. I don’t understand how he could have had the disease for two or three years without it being noticed”.
“You’ve heard them talk about the difference between indolent and aggressive lymphoma?”
“Indolent lymphoma isn’t especially dangerous because it doesn’t show many symptoms, but that means that it tends not to be detected until it’s well established. And of course it can turn into aggressive lymphoma, which is what’s happened to Dad”.
He frowned at me; “That’s not what Kelly had, though?”
“No, she had breast cancer. Eventually it moved into her lymph nodes and from there to the bones and the liver, but it wasn’t true lymphoma”.
We ambled along in silence for a couple of minutes, each of us occupied with our own thoughts. Eventually he said, “Well, shall we walk back up to the house? I think I’m ready for another drink”.
- * * * * *
I spent a quiet few days at my parents’ home, visiting with my mother and father, going for walks in the village and the old familiar countryside around, and making occasional trips into Oxford with Becca. The atmosphere when my father was awake was as tense as ever, but he usually slept each day for at least an hour in the early afternoon, and then my mother and I had some long, quiet conversations. In the middle of the week Becca drove me to Cowley for a morning interview, and afterwards we went out for lunch at a nearby pub.
My father went into the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford on Tuesday for his third chemo injection. As I expected he was fine on Wednesday, but the next day he began to feel seriously nauseous and by the middle of the day he was keeping to his room. My mother spent a lot of time with him, but when I asked her if there was anything I could do, she shook her head and said, “He doesn’t like to be seen like this, Tom”.
- * * * * *
On the Friday afternoon I had my interview at Gypsy Lane School in Headington. The head teacher, Siobhan Macnamara, was a dark-haired Irishwoman, a little older than me; she was brisk and businesslike, and in her questions she wasted no time in getting to the point. I saw the head of English, Kathy MacFarlane, smiling furtively at a couple of her head teacher’s comments; she herself took the lead when it came to specific questions about my teaching skills and experience, and I could tell she had read my resumé carefully and been impressed with it. The third person in the room was one of the school governors, but he took very little part in the interview and seemed to be there mainly to listen. I left at the end of the afternoon with a sense that things had gone well and that there was a good possibility I might be successful.
- * * * * *
My mother had invited the whole family to dinner again on Saturday night; I had spent the afternoon in Oxford with Becca, and it was already about five-thirty by the time we arrived at my parents’ place. Rick and Alyson and their children got there about half an hour later; it had been a working Saturday for my brother, and he was still wearing a dark suit and maroon tie when they came into the living room.
My father was getting over his nausea by now but he was still looking tired and pale. Nevertheless, he insisted on getting up and pouring drinks for everyone; Alyson accepted a glass of sherry from him and then took her seat beside me on the chesterfield. “How did your interviews go?” she asked.
“Alright, I think”.
“I hear you were back on familiar ground yesterday?”
“Yeah; there’ve been a few changes since the last time I was there”.
“How soon will you hear anything?”
“A couple of weeks”.
“Any sense of which way things might go?”
“I thought both interviews went quite well, but of course I’m unfamiliar with the protocol here so I can’t know for sure”.
“Did it feel different, being back in English schools?”
“Well, it’s the Easter holidays so I didn’t actually get to see either school in action. They’re definitely bigger than I’m used to; our school in Meadowvale has about six hundred students, and the one in Headington has fifteen hundred. I know the school culture’s going to be very different, and so is the curriculum; I have to admit that I find that a little daunting”.
“You can’t let them know that, though”, my father said. “They’ll read it as a sign of weakness. You can’t appear to be weak or they’ll take advantage of it”.
“Who are ‘they’, Dad?”
“Your pupils, of course”.
I shrugged. “I’ve never viewed teaching as a battleground”.
“You might find things a bit different here”.
“Of course; I’m sure the learning curve will be steep”. I glanced at my brother, who was sitting across from us in a wing chair, nursing a glass of scotch. “You were obviously working today”.
“Yes – I’ve got a client with a very important trial coming up in the next couple of weeks. We’re burning the midnight oil getting ready for it”.
“A criminal trial?”
He shook his head. “Commercial”, he replied; “There’s rather a lot of money involved”.
“Are you working on this alone?”
“God, no!” he exclaimed; “There are about five of us on the team. The files already fill dozens of boxes”.
“Do you have to read them all?”
“If I’m going to do a good job for my client”.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Eric shaking his head a couple of times, his eyes on the ground. He had refused my mother’s offer of a cup of tea, and was sitting in the corner of the room, obviously rather bored with the proceedings. Sarah was sitting beside him on a hard-backed chair, and I could tell by the expression on her face that she was waiting to catch my eye. I smiled at her; “How are you doing?”
“I’m alright. I emailed Emma”.
“That’s what I hear”.
“She’s read Harry Potter”.
“She has; she’s a big fan. You are too, are you?”
“I’ve read all of them; they’re fantastic!”
“I think there’s another one coming out soon, isn’t there?”
“In July; I can’t wait!”
“Are these those boy wizard books?” my brother asked with a smile.
“‘Boy wizard books!’” Becca quoted with a bemused grin; “Is it possible my brother hasn’t quite registered the biggest phenomenon in recent publishing history?”
“Are they really that big? I don’t know anything about them other than the name and that there are wizards and witches in them”.
“They’re well on their way to becoming the best-selling fiction series of all time”, I replied. “Kids have been lining up in bookstores for hours when new titles are released”.
“And there are films”, Becca added; “Highly successful films, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars”.
“Money, Dad”, Eric said sarcastically; “Surely you’ve noticed that?”
Rick glanced at him darkly; “Watch your tongue, Eric Masefield”.
Eric tossed his head dismissively and looked away again. Sarah glanced at him for a moment with a little frown, and then turned back to me. “Anyway”, she said, “I’ve emailed back and forth a couple of times with Emma; she seems really nice”.
“I knew she’d be glad to hear from you”.
“We mainly talked about books”.
“Do you like Ursula Le Guin too?”
“I love A Wizard of Earthsea; it’s my favourite book!”
“Oh yeah? It was one of my favourites when I was a teenager, too. I read it when it first came out; I think I was ten or eleven at the time”.
“Have you read her other books?”
“I think I’ve got almost every book she’s written; I think she’s brilliant. Emma really likes her, too”.
“That’s what she told me. But she said she’s reading George Eliot right now; I don’t really know anything about him”.
“‘Her’, actually; ‘George Eliot’ was her pen name, but her real name was Mary Ann Evans. Her stuff is really different from Ursula Le Guin’s”.
“Emma says her books are fantastic”.
Alyson smiled at her daughter; “You’ve found a kindred spirit”.
“I’m looking forward to meeting her; she’s really interesting to talk to”.
- * * * * *
The following morning, as Becca and I were finishing our coffee at a crowded café outside the departure lounge at Terminal Three, I said, “Rick seems to have inherited Dad’s work ethic in a big way”.
“Well, I can’t really talk there, can I? I’m just as much of a workaholic as either of them”.
“Can I ask you a personal question?”
“You know you can”.
“Do you ever see Mike?”
Immediately she looked away. Mike Carey was a paramedic; he had been her boyfriend for about eighteen months and they had lived together for almost a year, but he had ended their relationship just after Christmas. The previous summer, while they were still together, they had come to Meadowvale to visit Emma and me; while they were with us we had taken them camping for a week in Jasper National Park.
“I know where he’s staying”, she said, “and we know each other’s phone numbers, but we haven’t really talked since we broke up”.
“Sorry; it’s not really my business”.
“Don’t be silly; you and I don’t keep things from each other. To be honest I’m still finding it hard; the hardest part is knowing it was my fault”.
“You can’t be sure of that”.
“Tommy, spare me the sympathy; you and I have talked about this enough times to know I’m the one who’s got to learn to get my compulsive work habits under control. He was tired of being short-changed when it came to time together, and who can blame him? I certainly can’t”. She shook her head slowly; “It’s just that I don’t seem to be able to do anything about it”.
“You’re good at what you do, and you enjoy it”.
“Owen’s good at what he does, and he enjoys it, but he’s not driven like I am”.
“You’re still in touch with some of your high school friends, right?”
“I swim once a week with Stevie Fredericks, and we always have coffee afterwards”.
“You don’t do gymnastics any more, though?”
She laughed; “Not for a long time!”
“You two did pretty well in gymnastics competitions in high school”.
“We did”. She smiled at me; “Those were good days”.
“Kelly and I had our struggles with being over-busy, you know”.
“She told me that. I found it hard to believe; you always seemed so relaxed when I was with you”.
“That was because you almost always came in the summer time. During the school year it was a lot harder”.
“I know teachers are busy”.
“Yeah, and there were other things too. Kelly was working full time, and we were running the Sunday night group a couple of times a month, and attending a midweek study group at the church, and Ellie and Darren and I were driving down to Saskatoon regularly to play gigs. For a couple of years there we were running so fast that we barely connected with each other from morning to night”.
“But you worked it out?”
“Eventually – I gave up gigging with Ellie and Darren, and Kelly went down to half-time at the special care home. It wasn’t easy though; she loved her work and I loved my music. We had to decide what came first, but it wasn’t black and white; that’s what makes it hard, sometimes”.
She frowned thoughtfully, opened her mouth to speak, and then closed it again.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Are you telling me that you and Kelly were really in trouble for a while?”
“I’m telling you that we were an ordinary married couple and we had our struggles. Fortunately for us we were able to work through them; if we hadn’t, then yes, we could have been in trouble”.
She drank the rest of her coffee in silence, put the cup down on the saucer and said, “I suppose I always knew you were an ordinary married couple, but…”
“You enjoyed putting us on a pedestal”.
“I suppose I did. Life was pretty chaotic for me here, and coming to Meadowvale was always such a wonderfully restful thing. And of course, Kelly was always so good to me”.
“I have to say, our struggles were more my fault than hers”.
“Why are you telling me this, Tommy?”
“Because I don’t believe in all those neat personality classifications between Type A and Type B people. I think people are people; we all struggle with getting our priorities right and we all fail sometimes”.
She smiled sheepishly at me. “That’s your gentle brotherly way of telling me to quit blaming my Masefield genes and work harder at getting my life under control?”
“No, that’s my gentle brotherly way of saying we’re in this together”. I glanced at my watch. “And speaking of time…”.
“It’s that time, is it?”
“I’m afraid so”.
We got to our feet reluctantly; “Give my love to Owen and Lorraine”, I said.
“I will – and you give Emma love and hugs from me. Tell her I’ll see her in a couple of months”.
“I will. You don’t have to stand and watch me go through security, you know?”
She grinned at me mischievously; “But if I leave and then they turn you away at the gate, who’s going to drive you back to Northwood?”
“Well, I guess you have a point there, Doctor Masefield; they might even arrest me and throw me in jail”.
“Exactly! So you’ll let me stand and watch while you go through the line, then?”
“Oh well – if you insist”.
“I do”, she said defiantly, “So let’s go down to the gate, shall we?”