‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 13

Link back to Chapter 12

I talked to Emma about the concert at Merton Chapel, and as I had expected she was quite interested. The following evening, when we came home from her birthday party and drank our late night hot chocolate in front of the gas fireplace, she said, “I was talking to Alanna tonight about that concert with the Radcliffe Singers; she thinks she’d like to come along with us. Do you think that would be okay?”

“I’m sure it would. I don’t think I can ask Wendy to cover the cost of another ticket though”.

“Oh no, of course not – Alanna’s going to get her own ticket. She says she knows the pianist who plays for that choir”.

“A friend of hers?”

“A fellow-student; she says she’s really good. And Alanna really likes choral music”.

“Why don’t you ask her to come over here for a light supper that night? We could go down together afterwards”.

“That would be great – thanks, Dad”.

******

On the weekend before Christmas the weather turned cold and clear. We went out to Northwood on Friday night; Rick and the family joined us for dinner on Saturday, along with Becca and Auntie Brenda, and that afternoon while my father was sleeping Emma and Becca and I went for a long walk in the country. My father was looking quite well; he and Emma had enjoyed a long conversation in the living room that morning while my mother and I were playing Christmas carols in the music room.

“What were you talking about?” I asked her later.

“Lots of things. He asked me about some of my favourite books, and then we started talking about school in Meadowvale, and then we got onto family. That one kind of kept us busy for a while!”

“I guess”.

“He has a good sense of humour, you know”.

“My dad?”

“Yeah”.

I shook my head. “No”, I said quietly; “I didn’t know”.

******

On the Sunday morning we drove home early in order to attend the service at Banbury Road Church. Alanna McFarlane came back to our place afterwards, and she and Emma went out together for a couple of hours while I had a nap, read for a while, and got a few things ready for a light supper.

“Is this a dress up kind of thing tonight?” Emma asked as we were eating.

“I don’t know”, I replied. I smiled at Alanna, who was wearing jeans and a brightly coloured sweater; “You don’t seem too worried about that!”

She laughed; “The choir will be dressed up, but I’ll be surprised if the audience is. Although, if there’s a reception in the hall afterwards…”

“I wondered about that, but Wendy didn’t mention anything. You guys are still skipping the reception, right?”

“Yeah, we are”; Emma replied, “we’ve got that thing with Matthew and his friend. I’ll probably be home around eleven or eleven-thirty; I’ll call you if that changes, Dad”.

“Okay”.

We cleared up and did the dishes and then I went up and changed for the evening, putting on a tweed jacket and open-necked shirt. Emma nodded her approval when I came down; “Very posh”, she said in her best imitation of an Oxford accent.

“I’ll do, will I?”

“Oh yeah”.

“Okay; let’s go”.

******

We had decided to take the bus rather than try to negotiate parking in the centre of Oxford; we got off on the High not far from St. Mary the Virgin church, and then cut through Magpie Lane to Merton College. The ancient buildings of Oriel College loomed high on our right; straight ahead was Merton Chapel with its high square tower. A few people were standing in a loose cluster around the chapel door and I recognized Wendy among them, bundled up in a grey duffel coat and scarf against the cool air. She waved and smiled when she saw us. “You’re just in time; the pews are already starting to fill up in there. My friends Bev and David are saving places for us”.

“It’s rush seating, then?” Emma asked with a grin.

Wendy laughed; “I’ve never heard that phrase used to describe an event at Merton Chapel before, but yes – it’s rush seating!”

“Is Colin here?” I asked her.

“No; Lisa’s choir’s not really his sort of thing. It’s mutual; she doesn’t often go to his football matches either”.

She led us into the chapel; we stopped for a moment at the back of the nave to hand in our tickets and get our programs, and as our eyes adjusted to the light I remembered that – as in most of the college chapels in Oxford – the pews here faced each other across the centre aisle, rather than the usual orientation toward the front of the church. We passed under the carved wooden screen; the ceiling above was high and ornate, and on each side of us tall pointed windows were recessed into the plastered stone walls. As Wendy had said, the pews were already beginning to fill up, and there was a low buzz of conversation in the building.

Emma took my arm and whispered “This place is enormous! Are you sure it’s just a college chapel?”

“Yes, and it’s not the biggest one in Oxford either”.

“How do they get the money to keep these places up?”

“They’re all paid for by rich dead people”.

She laughed; “I guess it’s useful to have the dead on your side!”

Wendy led us to a pew about half way up the length of the chapel, where she introduced us to an elegant-looking woman and a jovial man with curly grey hair and a thick beard. “Tom, can I introduce you to some good friends of mine?” she said. “This is Bev Copeland; she teaches Classics here at Merton. We’ve known each other since we were students in London in the seventies. This is her husband David Wiseman; he’s an archeologist across the road at Oriel”.

Bev Copeland took my hand with a smile. “It’s a pleasure to meet you; Wendy’s told us quite a lot about you”.

“Not that I really know all that much!” Wendy added, glancing at me with an embarrassed look on her face. “Most of my knowledge about you ends in 1982!”

We took our seats with the Wisemans; Wendy had removed her coat and I saw that she was wearing a grey skirt and a thick woollen roll-neck sweater. “I’m relieved to see you’re not in formal evening dress”, I said; “I wasn’t quite sure what I should be wearing”.

“You look fine; most of us are just trying to keep warm!”

At about seven-thirty a young clergyman in a black suit and clerical collar walked up to the front; Wendy whispered in my ear that he was the college chaplain. He welcomed us all to Merton Chapel and said a few words about the Radcliffe Singers, and then as he sat down the choir made a formal entrance from the back, the men in black suits and bow ties, the women in black dresses and red scarves. They took their places at the front, each one carrying a music folder; off to one side a young woman with long red hair took her seat at a grand piano. A thick-set man who was obviously the music director took his place out front, facing the choir, and as he was getting ready I leaned over and whispered to Wendy, “Which one is Lisa?”

“First from the left, on the front row”.

She was strikingly beautiful, standing there in her black dress with her long dark hair hanging loose down her back. I saw the resemblance to her mother immediately, and to Colin, although she was noticeably taller than him. I opened my mouth to speak again, but at that moment the music director raised his hands, the choir members opened their folders, and the pianist began to play the introduction to the first carol.

The concert lasted for about ninety minutes; it included familiar pieces as well as some I had never heard before. I recognized some of my favourites: the Wexford Carol, ‘Adam Lay Y-Bounden’, ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’, ‘Gaudete’, and a wonderfully light and fluid arrangement of ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’. Most of the songs were accompanied by the pianist, but a few of them were performed a cappella, and these I found particularly enjoyable.

The last carol of the evening was ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’, sung in full four-part harmony with piano accompaniment on all but one verse. When it was finished, the audience rose to their feet in an enthusiastic standing ovation. The choir members bowed a couple of times and then, as the applause continued, they processed out to the back of the chapel.

“That was awesome!” Emma exclaimed, taking my arm as the people around us began to put their coats on and the low buzz of conversation began.

“You enjoyed it?”

“I really did; I’ve never heard anything quite like it before. Especially the a cappella ones; they were my favourites”.

“Mine too”.

As people began to make their way out of the chapel Alanna slipped out of the pew and went over to talk to the young woman at the piano. Wendy had been talking to the Wisemans but now she turned back to us with a smile. “Well, what did you think?”

“It was totally amazing!” Emma said; “Thank you so much for inviting us!”

“I’m really glad you liked it”. Wendy hesitated and then said “Emma, would you mind if I introduced you to Lisa? I asked her to wait for us outside the hall because I knew you wouldn’t be going in for the reception”.

“Sure; that would be fine”.

At that moment the young clergyman came over to us with a smile on his face; “I’m Stephen Jeffreys”, he said in a high-pitched voice.

“Tom Masefield”, I replied as we shook hands.

“Stephen, these are the friends I told you about”, said Wendy. “Tom and I were students together; this is his daughter Emma”.

“Ah yes – the Mennonites; how fascinating! Wendy mentioned to me that you were coming; I don’t expect you get this sort of thing very much in your churches, do you?”

“Not very often”, I replied, “although at one time there was a real tradition of unaccompanied four-part singing in Mennonite churches. It’s not as common these days as it used to be”.

He shook Emma’s hand; “Are you going to be staying for the reception?”

“I’m afraid not, but my dad is”.

“Have you ever seen Merton Hall?”

“No I haven’t”.

“You must come in for a minute and have a look, even if you’re not staying; it’s really worth seeing. Wouldn’t you agree, Wendy?”

“It is rather lovely”, Wendy agreed with a smile, “but perhaps Emma’s got another commitment she needs to get to?”

“I’ve got a minute”, replied Emma. “Matthew’s not going anywhere fast”.

******

Not everyone in the audience stayed for the reception but there were still a good many who made their way across the front quad to the old thirteenth-century hall. Lisa was waiting for us outside the entrance, and I saw she had put on a coat and scarf against the frigid night air.  There was a young man of her own age standing beside her; he was a little taller than her, with very short blond hair, and I recognised him as one of the tenors from the choir. Wendy went up to them with a smile and kissed Lisa on the cheek; “You were excellent of course!” she said.

“Thank you”.

Wendy introduced us; “This is my daughter Lisa and her boyfriend, Mark Robarts”.

Lisa took my outstretched hand with a dazzling smile. “I’ve heard quite a lot about you, Mr. Masefield; it actually feels rather intimidating to meet you!”

Emma grinned mischievously; “Yeah, my dad can be intimidating sometimes!”

We all laughed, and Emma continued “Your mom’s right, Lisa – you guys were outstanding”.

“Thank you”.

“Dad plays a few of those songs, but of course they sound quite different on guitar”.

“You play Christmas music on guitar?” she asked me.

“I do”.

“Shall we go in?” Wendy suggested; “I want Emma to have a chance to see the hall before she and Alanna have to leave”.

******

I had been in Merton Hall two or three times in my student days when Wendy had invited Owen and me to eat there as her guests. As we entered from the back I took in at a glance the high beamed ceiling, the wooden floor, the tall pointed windows in the plaster walls, and the old portraits hanging in various places around the room. Three dining tables ran the length of the hall, with the high table at the front, but for the reception the chairs had been removed so that people could stand around. There were trays of finger food on the tables, and servers were already moving around the room with drinks.

Emma spoke in hushed tones. “This looks like an old church. Who are all the people in the paintings?”

“College dignitaries from a long time ago”, Wendy replied.

“How old is this college?”

“It was founded in 1264. The hall dates back to not long after that, although there isn’t much of the original structure left”.

“And this is just the dining hall?”

“Yes”.

“Are there classrooms too?”

Wendy smiled. “There are lecture rooms all over Oxford, and science labs and things like that, but in the English school we do most of our teaching in small group tutorials in the fellows’ rooms”.

“How small is small?”

“Years ago they were one on one but these days they’re usually in groups of three or four; your dad must have told you about it?”

“Actually”, I said apologetically, “I don’t think I’ve told Emma very much about how we did our studying”.

“That’s something you’re going to have to make up for real soon, Dad”, Emma said with a grin.

“Absolutely”.

Emma glanced at Alanna and then smiled at me; “Well, I guess we need to be making tracks”.

“Do I have time to walk with them to the gate?” I asked Wendy.

“Of course – all we’re going to be doing here is standing around for an hour talking and drinking wine!”

Emma and I followed Alanna out of the hall and across the quad to the porter’s lodge; I put my arm around her and said “There’s going to be a designated driver, right?”

She grinned at me; “Have you been worrying about that all night?”

“A little”.

She reached up and kissed my cheek. “Don’t worry – I may be eighteen now but I still don’t care for drinking. And anyway, Alanna and Matthew aren’t into that kind of thing; it’s true we’re going to a pub but it’ll be about the conversation, not the beer”.

“Sorry – just being a dad, I guess”.

“That’s fine”, she replied softly as we walked through the alley onto Merton Street; “You keep right on with that”.

“Okay. Ah – there’s Matthew waiting for you”.

******

Back in the hall I found Lisa standing with her boyfriend beside one of the tables, a glass of wine in her hand. She smiled when she saw me; “Would you like a drink?”

“Sure, but don’t worry – I’ll snag a server next time they come by”.

“Do you really play Christmas music on guitar?”

“I actually rather like Christmas music – the spiritual sort, that is. I’ve been arranging old carols for guitar and voice for years”.

“Arranging for performance, you mean?”

“Occasionally. I was one of the music leaders at our church back home, and sometimes I played in coffee shops and house concerts and that sort of thing”.

“Do you still do that?”

“Not so much; we’ve been pretty busy since the summer”.

“Mum said she had a wonderful time singing with you the other week. She used to sing with my dad when I was little but she hasn’t done anything like that for a long time now”.

“She hasn’t lost her gorgeous voice, though. When I first heard her sing I thought it was the most beautiful voice I’d ever heard in my life; I still think it comes pretty close”.

“She is a really good singer. Oh, here comes a server – let’s get you a drink”.

I helped myself to a glass of red wine from the server’s tray and then turned back to Lisa and Mark. “I was actually a little surprised to hear that you were into choral music”, I said to her; “I assumed you’d pick up your musical tastes from your mum or your dad”.

“Not from my dad; I picked up as little from him as possible”.

I heard the hard note in her voice and I decided to steer clear of it. “So I know you’re at Christ Church and I know you’re reading Modern Languages, but I don’t know much beyond that. Do you have plans?”

“Actually I do – I want to be a translator. I’m not sure at the moment whether that would mean written work, or actual oral translation for governments or the UN or that sort of thing. But I enjoy languages and I’ve always had an ear for them”.

“I expect good translators are always in demand”.

“It depends on the languages” she replied, taking a sip of her wine. “I’m studying Russian and German – I like them both and they give me good opportunities to work in Eastern Europe. I’d actually like to go on and do a postgraduate degree but I might feel differently after I’ve finished four years here”.

“So you’re in your third year now?”

“Yes. I spent eight months last year studying at Yaroslavl in Russia; it’s northeast of Moscow”.

“On your own initiative, or is it required for the course?”

“It’s required for the course; all beginners in Russian have to go to Yaroslavl State University for their second year. I didn’t do Russian in high school so that was the program I had to take”.

“Did you get to go with her?” I asked Mark.

“I’m afraid not”, he replied with a grin. “I’m in biochemistry, not modern languages, so I was rather busy around here. I did fly out to spend a few weekends with her, though. It was certainly very interesting”.

“How’s your Russian?”

“Totally non-existent!”

“That must have been quite an experience then”.

He grinned at her; “Well, I always had my own private translator with me, so I was alright”.

“It was nice to see him of course”, Lisa said with a mischievous grin, “but he was a bit distracting”.

“Glad to see me come and glad to see me go?” he said.

“Something like that”.

“So you had a good time, all in all?” I asked her.

“It was outstanding. I was able to do some travelling to places like Moscow and St. Petersburg, I made some good friends, and I got a really good working knowledge of the language and culture”.

While she was speaking Wendy appeared at her elbow, a half-empty wine glass in her hand. “Her mother, of course, got a few more grey hairs!” she said with a smile.

I helped myself to a piece of shortbread from the table. “I actually have a family connection with Yaroslavl”.

“How so?” asked Lisa.

“Well, Emma and I have relatives in Russia”.

I saw the surprise on her face; “Really?”

“Yes. My wife was a Mennonite; the Mennonites are originally from western Europe but some of them migrated to Russia in the late eighteenth century. Kelly’s ancestors lived for over a century in a big Mennonite colony just north of the Crimean peninsula; her grandparents fled from Russia after the First World War and moved to Canada”.

“Fled from persecution, you mean?”

“That was part of it, but there were other factors too; it’s a long and complicated story. Not everyone was able to get out; lots of people got left behind and some of them died in the Gulag. Some just disappeared and we don’t really know what happened to them. But some survived, so we have living relatives over there today. Kelly got interested in the family roots back in the nineteen-eighties; over the years she made contact with some of the folks in Russia and found out about their stories”.

“Do they live in Yaroslavl?”

“One of them, Stepan Konrad, but the person Kelly was mainly in touch with was a woman called Justina Wiebe. She and her husband live in Zaporizhia. Justina and Kelly were third cousins, although there was quite an age difference between them – I think Justina’s sixty-five this year”.

“Zaporizhia’s in Ukraine, isn’t it?”

“Yes – just across the river from where the Mennonites lived before the First World War”.

“That’s a long way from Yaroslavl”.

“Yes”. I grinned at her apologetically; “It would take a long time to tell the story of the travels of all our relatives! But getting back to the Konrads, they’re descended from one of Kelly’s great-aunts, Gertrude Reimer; she married Heinrich Konrad in the early nineteen-hundreds. Their great-grandson Stepan teaches at the university in Yaroslavl”.

She shook her head; “I don’t think I’ve heard of him. Do you know what he teaches?”

“Something scientific, I think”.

“That makes sense – all my classes were in the faculty of communications and philology, so I wouldn’t have had any reason to know him”.

I smiled at her; “Emma will be very interested to hear you’ve been to Russia and you speak Russian”.

“Has she picked up on her mum’s interest in the family history?”

“Yes, especially since Kelly died”.

“I’ll have to have a talk with her. What are her plans in Oxford?”

“She’s taking a gap year at the moment, spending time with family and volunteering at a nursing home not far from where we live. She wants to be a nurse; she’s got her application in to Oxford Brookes for the autumn term”.

“Rather her than me; I don’t think I’d have the patience for nursing”.

******

After a few minutes Lisa and Mark excused themselves momentarily; in their absence I turned to Wendy and said, “Well, I’m impressed with your girl”.

“I’m glad. Of course, she’s turning on the charm for you right now”.

“You’re telling me there’s a non-charming side?”

She shrugged; “I shouldn’t really be talking about her. Things between us are – well, we don’t always have an easy relationship, let’s put it that way”.

“I’m sorry, Wendy”.

She shook her head. “Just normal parent-child issues; you must have your share of them with Emma, too?”

“Actually I’ve been very, very lucky with Emma; her mum did a good job of passing on her basic stability and common sense”.

Wendy laughed; “I’m sure you had something to do with it as well”.

I shrugged; “Maybe a little, but I’m pretty sure it was mainly Kelly”.

******

I stayed at the reception longer than I had expected. Wendy introduced me to a couple of her colleagues, the Wisemans asked me about Canada, and for a while the young chaplain quizzed me about Mennonite Christianity. I found some of his mannerisms a little odd, but there was no mistaking his genuine interest in the spiritual journeys of others and I could see why Wendy got along well with him.

It was after ten o’clock by the time Wendy and I emerged onto the quad with Mark and Lisa; the darkened sky overhead seemed to be overcast and I thought I caught a hint of snow in the frigid air. Lisa turned to her mother; “Well, I’ll see you later”.

“I’ll probably be in bed and asleep. Still, come in and let me know you’re home, alright?”

“It’ll probably be very late”.

“I don’t mind – I’d rather know you’re home”.

The girl smiled indulgently; “If you insist”, she said, leaning forward and kissing her mother on the cheek. “It was lovely to meet you, Mr. Masefield”, she said to me; “I hope we see you again soon”.

“Nice to meet you, too, Lisa”, I replied. She flashed me a brilliant smile and then turned and slipped out of the main gate.

“They’ve got another engagement tonight?” I asked.

“I think they’re going out to a club for a little while. Mark’s a very nice young man and he’s always very polite to me, but for some reason I’m wary about him; I really don’t know why”.

“Has she being going out with him for long?”

“They’ve known each other since their high school days but I think they started dating in their first year at university”. She smiled apologetically at me; “I’m probably just being a typical paranoid mother. How about Emma; what are she and Alanna doing tonight?”

“They’ll probably be home in a couple of hours; they went out to a pub with Alanna’s brother Matthew and one of his friends. Emma assures me they’ll be behaving themselves”.

“Is she taking advantage of her newfound freedom to buy drinks in public?”

“Actually Emma’s never liked alcohol, not even wine, and certainly not beer or hard liquor. She’ll probably be the one drinking tea tonight”.

Wendy laughed; “Have you got any idea how lucky you are?”

“Yeah, I know. Well, I’d better be going”. I leaned forward, kissed her lightly on the cheek, and said “Thanks for inviting me, Wendy; I enjoyed myself”.

“I’m glad to hear it. Would you like to get together again some time in the not-too-distant future?”

I nodded; “I would. Shall I give you a phone call in a week or so? We’re going out to Northwood tomorrow night to spend Christmas with my parents and we won’t be back for a few days. Maybe we can do coffee or something during the holidays”.

“I’d like that very much but it’ll have to closer to New Year’s. We’ll be visiting with my brother and my parents down in Essex over Christmas; we’ll probably be back around the 29th or 30th”.

“Alright; I’ll talk to you soon, then”.

“Good night, Tom; thanks for coming”.

******

I was able to catch a bus quickly and I got home around ten-thirty. I knew it would likely be a while before Emma came in and I didn’t want to go to bed without knowing she was alright, so I made myself a cup of herbal tea and went up to my den; I had a couple of little jobs I needed to finish off to put the term to rest, and I needed to access the school website to be able to complete them. I worked quickly, sipping at my tea from time to time, and by about eleven fifteen I was done. I thought of texting Emma to see what time she thought she would be home, but decide against it; the last thing she needed, I told myself, was a father who gave the impression of not trusting her.

I don’t remember exactly what led me to search for Lisa’s school records; I suppose I was curious, having enjoyed our conversation earlier in the evening. I used my password to access the school’s central filing system and then typed in the name ‘Lisa Kingsley’. The search came up blank, so I tried again with ‘Lisa Howard’. The machine stirred and the information appeared on the screen in front of me: Lisa Elizabeth Howard, date of birth February 25th 1983, Acton, London.

It was a moment before I realized the significance of the date in front of me. Wendy had told Owen and me that Lisa had been born about a year after she and Mickey moved in together, which would put her birth some time in the summer of 1983; February 25th was definitely not in the summer. And immediately I began counting back in my mind; nine months of pregnancy meant that Lisa had been conceived toward the end of May 1982, after Mickey and Wendy had broken up, but before I left for Canada.

At that moment I heard the front door open, and Emma’s cheerful voice calling out “I’m home; are you still awake?”

I quickly quit the program and shut down my computer, my mind still reeling. “I’m up in my den”, I called.

I heard her bounding up the stairs two at a time, and a moment later her head appeared around the doorway. “Did you have your hot chocolate?” she asked.

“I was waiting for you”.

She came over and kissed me on the top of my head; “Where you working?”

“Just finishing off a few things; I was just shutting down when you came in”.

“I’ll go down and make the hot chocolate then”.

“Alright – I’ll be down in a minute”.

******

A few minutes later the two of us were sitting on either side of the gas fire, our mugs in our hands. “So – how was it?” I asked.

“Interesting”, she replied with a grin; “We went to the Eagle and Child”.

“Ah – the Bird and Baby!”

She laughed; “Matthew reminded me about the history of the place. Did we go there once last time we were here?”

“Yes; we had lunch there with Becca”.

“I was pretty sure I remembered that. You talked to me about Lewis and Tolkien and all those guys writing their books there, didn’t you?”

“I don’t think they actually wrote there, but they used to meet there to read to each other”.

“Right – that’s what Matthew was saying”.

“Is he interested in that kind of thing?”

She shrugged; “He seems to know a lot about it, anyway. He’s read a few of their books”.

“You guys had a good time?”

“We did”, she replied, smiling mischievously at me, “and in case you’re wondering, Matthew and Alanna and Neil had one pint each, and I had a whole pot of tea to myself”.

I smiled apologetically; “I wasn’t really worried”.

“Yeah – you were!” she replied mischievously.

“Alright – maybe just a little!”

We both laughed, and then she said, “How about the reception?”

I told her about my conversation with Lisa, and as I had expected, she was very interested to hear about her time in Russia and her interest in the Russian language. “Maybe I can get together with her some time”, she said; “I’d love to find out more about what it’s actually like to live there”.

“I’m sure she’d be glad to talk to you”.

“You know, I’d love to go there some day”.

I nodded; “Somehow I’m not surprised to hear you say that”.

“It’s interesting to think about our roots, isn’t it?”

“It was really important to your mom”.

“I remember”.

“She’d be glad to know you were interested”.

“Well, I’ve spent a lot of time with all those notes she wrote”.

“I know”. I took a sip of my hot chocolate; “Tell me about Matthew’s friend Neil – what was he like?”

She laughed; “He was the strange one!”

“Oh?”

“He’s very ‘theological’”, she said, making air quotes with her fingers.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. I think someone needs to tell him that Jesus didn’t say ‘Follow me, and I will teach you to be weird!’”

“A little other-worldly?”

She laughed again; “More than a little!” she replied.

******

We went to bed around midnight, but it would be a long time before I went to sleep. I tossed and turned in the darkened bedroom, my mind going over the events of those spring days back in 1982.

After that first time she had come to my bed-sitter Wendy and I had gradually started to spend more time together. Mickey was not taking his dismissal from her life lying down and he began to come to her room in the evenings, knocking on her door and refusing to go away unless she let him in. In order to avoid him Wendy began to come over to my place to study, and from time to time the two of us would go out to see a movie or share a late drink in a pub. Owen, Wendy and I were still playing music together occasionally, but as our final exams drew closer we found it more and more difficult to make time for it.

A number of people assumed that Wendy and I had begun to date; Owen in his straightforward way once asked me about it directly. We were out walking together on a fine Saturday morning in late April and he said, “Sorry if I’m prying, but are you and Wendy a couple now?”

“No – we’re just friends. She seems to be turning to me to help her get over Mickey but I’m not about to fall into one of those rebound love affairs. Anyway, she knows about my plans for Canada”.

“Told your mum and dad yet?”

“There’s nothing to tell, since I haven’t definitely got the position”.

“But you’ll tell them when you get it?”

I shrugged and looked away. “I think I’d prefer to leave it as long as I can, to cut down on the amount of time I have to listen to my father doing his volcano act”.

“Up to you, but I think the longer you put it off, the more violent the eruption’s going to be”.

I had told him the truth about Wendy and me; we were not dating, and we were certainly not sharing a sexual relationship. There had been times, when she was feeling particularly low, that she had asked me to hold her as I had on that first night, but that was as far as it had gone.

******

The digital clock on my bedside table showed 1.15 a.m.; tired of lying there sleepless, I got out of bed quietly, slipped out of my room and made my way as noiselessly as I could down to the kitchen. I boiled the kettle, made myself another cup of herbal tea and went to sit in the darkened living room. The mantelpiece above the hearth was full of Christmas cards from Canada and our tiny Christmas tree stood in the corner of the room by the front window, a few gifts clustered underneath it waiting to be taken out to Northwood for the holidays. I was looking but not seeing, while my mind was reliving the vivid memories of twenty-one years ago.

******

One night in late May Wendy appeared at my door as usual after supper. “Hello there”, I said; “I just made the tea”.

“Getting predictable, aren’t I?” She followed me into the room, dropped her canvas backpack on the floor and started to take out her books; “Did you have a busy day?”.

“Yes, but a good one”.

I gave her a mug of tea, and we sat at my table in near silence for the next couple of hours, both of us studying our respective books and notes. From time to time we would make comments about what we were reading, and occasionally those comments led to longer discussions. At around nine o’clock I made a fresh pot of tea and put some quiet music on my record player. At this point I moved over to the couch; a few minutes later she joined me there, her back against the other arm of the couch and her feet tucked under my left leg. We sipped our tea for a few minutes without saying anything, listening to the music and easy in each other’s company.

Eventually I drained my cup, put it down on the coffee table in front of us and said, “Well, I’ve got some news”.

“Oh?”

“I’ve got the job”.

“The one you applied for in Canada?”

“Yes”.

“Wow – congratulations!”

“Thank you”.

“Are you pleased?”

I nodded slowly. “It’s not that I won’t miss a few people – yourself included of course”.

“And Owen; you’ve been friends for a long time”.

“Yes”.

“What’s the name of the place again?”

“Meadowvale; it’s a small town in Saskatchewan, on the prairies. I’ll be teaching English at the local high school”.

“Do you know much about the town?”

“It’s pretty small; the school’s got about six hundred pupils, I think”.

She smiled at me. “Mr. Tom Masefield, high school English teacher. Well – I’m proud of you!”

“Thanks; to tell you the truth I feel a bit nervous about it. Studying is one thing, but actually doing it – in a foreign country, in a place I’ve never seen – that’s completely different”.

“You’ve done alright with your student teaching, though”.

“Yeah – for the most part it’s gone well”.

She looked at me in silence for a moment, a thoughtful expression on her face. Eventually I smiled awkwardly; “What is it?”

“I’ll miss you”, she said softly.

“I know, Wendy; I’ll miss you, too”.

She reached over and put her hand on mine; “You’ve been a big help to me over the past couple of months”.

I shrugged; “All I’ve done is given you a chair at my table for studying”.

“No, you’ve done more than that, and you know it”. She leaned forward and kissed me gently on the cheek, and then shifted around beside me on the couch, laying her head on my left shoulder, her face against my neck. I put my arm around her, and we sat there in silence for a few minutes; I was breathing the intoxicating fragrance of her hair, and I could feel my body beginning to stir in response to her proximity.

“Do you mind me cuddling with you like this?” she whispered.

“Of course not”.

“I know I’m not really being fair to you, but…”

“Hush, Wendy; you say that every time”.

We lapsed into silence again, listening to the music in the background, our senses full of each other. Time in the room seemed to be standing still. Eventually I touched her cheek with the fingers of my right hand, prompting her to turn a little on the chesterfield and lift her face to mine. Our lips were only inches apart. I hesitated, and then slowly crossed the distance, leaning forward and kissing her, tentatively at first, but then with greater confidence as I felt her lips open to mine.

When we drew back, I searched her eyes and asked, “Do you mind me kissing you like this?”

“I don’t think so”, she replied in a barely audible voice.

“Do you mind if I do it again?”

“I want you to do it again”.

******

I had finished my cup of herbal tea, but my body felt no closer to sleep. I was surprised at the vividness of my memories of that night. Part of me – the part that still felt like a married man – even felt a little guilty as I remembered the warmth of Wendy’s body as we made love together on the bed in my one-room flat. I got up from the chair and walked around the room for a few minutes, trying to get warm. It was after two o’clock now, and even the street outside was silent and still.

******

Wendy and I woke up when my alarm went off at seven o’clock. It had not been a good night for sleep; my bed was not really big enough for two people, and we were forced into continual contact with each other’s bodies. In the first part of the night, when our hunger was strong, this had just led to more sex, but later, when we were exhausted and sated with each other, it had simply become uncomfortable. At about four o’clock I had moved over to the couch, where I was curled uncomfortably when the unwelcome morning came.

I got up painfully, shut off the alarm and looked at Wendy lying on my bed with the blankets and sheets wrapped crazily around her. Her long dark hair was messy and her eyes were red from lack of sleep. I crouched beside the bed and put my hand on her shoulder. “Would you like some tea?” I asked.

“Yeah”, she replied with a yawn, “and then I’d better get out of here”.

“I could make you some toast if you want”.

She pulled herself into an upright position, the sheets and blankets falling away from her naked body, and pushed her hair out of her face. “I don’t think so”, she said. “I’d better get back to Manor Place before things get too busy around here”.

She pulled on her clothes, washed her face and brushed her teeth in my sink, tried to bring some order to her hair, and then accepted a cup of tea from me gratefully. As we stood there, drinking our tea and looking at each other, she said, “Tom…”

“I know”.

“It’s not that I don’t care for you…”

I raised my hand and touched her lips; her hand came up and held my fingers to her cheek. “You’re such a good friend…” she whispered.

“…but friends and lovers are not the same”.

“You understand”; the relief was plain in her voice.

“I understand what you think about the subject; I might not agree, but I know you feel strongly about it”.

“It’s not that I don’t care about you, or that I didn’t enjoy myself last night…”

“I think it was this morning, actually!”

We both laughed awkwardly, standing there facing each other, our tea mugs in our hands, knowing instinctively that no matter how much we tried to minimize its impact, what we had done could not be undone, and it had changed everything between us. A few moments later she left my room with her backpack slung over her shoulder.

********

I climbed the stairs back up to my solitary room at around two thirty. I was not hopeful that I would fall asleep any time soon, but at least I could lie down and rest my weary body. Suddenly, as I sat on my bed, I felt an overwhelming sense of desolation. My mind was moving to the conclusion of the story of me and Wendy, but at a different level my heart and my body were aching for Kelly; it was always at these times of sleeplessness that my bed seemed far too big and empty without her. I shook my head and offered a silent prayer for a sense of God’s companionship. Then I lay down on my side and pulled the comforter up around my neck.

******

That night was the only time Wendy and I ever had sex with each other. I knew in my heart that I would have been happy for our relationship to continue to grow, but Wendy’s views about mixing friendship and love were firmly and stubbornly held. And in a sense it turned out that she was right. After that night she never came around to my room again. It was as if she knew instinctively that I would want to make love with her again, while what she needed most from our relationship was my friendship and support. We met a few times to study in cafés and pubs, but our conversation was awkward; our night together loomed too large in our thoughts, but we knew we couldn’t talk about it without risking our friendship even further.

The only person I told about it at the time was Owen. One evening at the beginning of July he and I went out to the ‘Plough and Lantern’ for a quiet drink; the pub was only half full that night, and we found a secluded table in a corner and chatted quietly about our future. My move to Canada was only four weeks away and for both of us it was casting a dark shadow over everything. After a while he gave me a significant glance. “I notice you and Wendy aren’t spending so much time together; is everything all right?”

I had thought long and hard about whether I would tell him what had happened, but now that the opportunity had arisen it seemed natural to talk about it. “Well, we spoilt our platonic relationship”, I said. “We spent a night together at the end of May”.

“I had a hunch that might happen sooner or later”.

“You don’t approve, of course”.

“The more important issue is if you approve. Has it been good for your relationship with her?”

I shook my head. “She’s so stubborn about not combining friendship and love. If I wasn’t leaving for Canada, I’d have a stab at changing her mind, but I think it would be really selfish of me to try to force the issue, given the circumstances”.

“So all in all it hasn’t been a good thing?”

“No; in fact, we’ve probably spoiled our friendship without gaining anything in its place”.

“I’m sorry to hear that; you two were pretty good friends”.

“We were, but now I don’t know where we stand”.

******

Emma had to go out early to Marston Court; unusually, I didn’t wake up until I heard her closing the front door behind her. I took a hot shower, drank a cup of strong coffee, and then turned on my computer and went back to the school records. There was the information again, staring at me from the screen: Lisa Elizabeth Howard, date of birth February 25th 1983, Acton, London.

The truth was staring me in the face: Wendy had lied to me, wanting to continue to hide the truth about her daughter’s parentage. I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that Mickey and Wendy had not been sharing a sexual relationship in May of 1982, and it was inconceivable that Wendy could have been sleeping with anyone else. The only possible explanation was that Lisa was my daughter.

I sat there for a long time, thinking about the implications of this fundamental shift in my universe. Emma was not my only child. For nearly twenty-one years I had been the father of another daughter, and the secret had been kept from me. I found myself thinking back to the years when Kelly was struggling so hard to accept the fact that she would not be able to have any more children; a big family had always been her dream, and it had taken a long time for her to come to terms with the hard reality that Emma would be her only child. It had not been such a huge issue for me – I had been relieved that she had survived ovarian cancer at all – but there had been a few times over the years when I had found myself wondering what it would have been like to have another daughter, or perhaps a son. And all that time, unknown to me, my older daughter had been growing up in England. For all I knew, perhaps she had always called Mickey her dad and assumed he was her biological father.

After a few minutes I picked up the phone and called Owen’s clinic. When his receptionist answered I said, “Hi, Janet, it’s Tom Masefield here. Could you ask Dr. Foster to call me at home when he has a free minute?”

“I think he’s free right now, Mr. Masefield; shall I put him on the line?”

“Please do”.

A moment later I heard Owen’s voice. “Tom – what’s up?”

“I need to talk to you about something, preferably face to face. Do you have any free time this morning, or early afternoon?”

“Actually, I’m free now; I just came in to check a few things, but I’m not really working”.

“I really need to bend your ear if you’ve got a minute”.

“Of course – would a coffee shop be okay, or do you want to come in here and have me charge it to the National Health Service?”

I chuckled; “No, let’s meet at that café round the corner from the clinic. I don’t want Becca to know we’ve talked”.

“Well, now I’m curious! See you there in about fifteen minutes?”

“Right”.

******

We sat in the corner of the dimly lit café, sipping our coffee while I tried to get my thoughts into order. Owen was dressed formally in suit and tie, but he had loosened his tie and undone the top button of his shirt. “So”, he said, “what’s this about?”

“It’s about Wendy’s daughter Lisa. Tell me if I’m remembering this right: the day before Emma’s party Wendy told us she moved to London in the summer of 1982 and moved in with Mickey, and Lisa was born about a year later”.

“That’s what she said”.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes – why?”

“She was lying to us. I checked the school files last night and the dates don’t match. Lisa isn’t Mickey’s daughter at all; she’s mine”.

He stared at me; “You can’t be serious!”

“I’m very serious”.

He put his cup down on its saucer, his eyes searching my face. “And how are you doing with this piece of information?”

I shook my head; “I hardly know how to answer that”.

“Royally pissed off with Wendy?”

“Really pissed off! How could she do this to me? How could she keep this from me for over twenty years? What sort of an act of friendship is that?”

“I suspect there’s only one person who can answer that question and I strongly advise you not to ask her about it while you’re angry with her”. He frowned; “How did you begin to suspect?”

“I didn’t; it was totally accidental. I met Lisa at that concert at Merton last night and we had a good conversation afterwards. I happened to be on the school website after I got home and I just got curious and looked up her records. It’s there in black and white: Lisa Elizabeth Howard, born February 25th 1983”.

“Damn”, he swore softly; “Then there’s no question about it”.

“None at all”.

“I take it you haven’t talked to her yet?”

“No; I decided to talk to you instead”.

“Good plan”.

“That’s what I thought”.

We drank our coffee in silence for a moment, and then he looked across at me again; “You’re worried about Emma, aren’t you?”

“I sure am – she’s an only child, and since her mother died we’ve been even closer to each other. This is going to break her heart”.

“I don’t think so”.

“Why not?”

“You and Kelly have done a great job of raising that girl; she’s an unusually secure teenager. Yes of course, it’s going to be a shock to her at first, but I think she’ll work her way through it and she’ll be fine”.

“I wish I could be sure about that”.

“I understand, but I don’t think you should be too worried. She’ll probably have a quiet talk about it with Becca or Ellie, but that’s nothing new, is it? And it surely won’t come as a surprise to her that you had relationships with other women before you met her mother?”

“The conception of a child puts this in a rather different category, don’t you think?”

He grinned; “Well, that’s true, I suppose”.

“I’m just having a hard time picturing how I’m going to tell her that I had a one-night stand with Wendy six weeks before I left England”.

He sat back and looked me in the eye; “Well, for a start I would encourage you not to use the phrase ‘one-night stand’”.

“Why not?”

“You yourself admitted to me years ago that you would have liked your relationship with Wendy to go further. I think you’d started to fall in love with her”.

I shook my head vehemently; “That’s too strong a word; it was…”

He leaned forward and put his hand on my arm. “Tom, this isn’t about loyalty to Kelly; she wasn’t anywhere on your radar screen at the time. This is about honesty about the past. Let’s tell the truth to each other here; Wendy was fundamentally wrong about friendship and love, and you know it. In 1982 your friendship with her was beginning to turn into love, whether or not either of you wanted to admit it. So I don’t think it does you any good to describe that event as a ‘one night stand’. You weren’t strangers; you had been talking with each other at a deeper level for some time. Of course the sexual element came into your relationship too soon, but I know you pretty well and I’m sure in my own mind that the night you spent together wasn’t only about sex. Tell me – am I wrong?”

For a long time I didn’t answer; I avoided his eyes, drinking my coffee and staring out of the window. Eventually I shook my head slowly; “No, I don’t think you’re wrong”.

“So then – why not admit that, and frame the picture a little differently?”

“So you think I should tell Emma the whole story, including the fact that I’d started to fall in love with Wendy?”

“I do. You and Emma aren’t in the habit of keeping secrets from each other”.

“No, but as I said…”

“I understand that this is a big one, but she’s a big girl with a heart full of love for her dad”.

I nodded slowly; “You’re right about that”.

He finished his coffee and set the cup down on the saucer. Pointing at my own cup, he said, “Want a refill?”

“Why not?”

He picked up both cups, got to his feet and went over to the counter. A few minutes later he returned with fresh coffee, sat down and said, “So what do you want to do about this?”

I shrugged. “There are all kinds of things I’d like to know, but there’s a basic problem, isn’t there?”

“You’re talking about the fact that Wendy still doesn’t want you to know the truth”.

“Right”.

“That’s a tough one. Are you going to try to talk to her?”

“I think I have to – otherwise it just becomes the big elephant in the room, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah. You’re not going to rush into this though, right?”

“Well, I’m not going to see her until after Christmas; she’s going down to Essex to spend time with her family. I told her I’d give her a call closer to New Year’s”.

“Good. And while you’re out in Northwood, go for some of your long morning walks and try to think this thing through. I’m on call Christmas Day but we’ll probably be out to see Dad and Mum on Boxing Day, and you and I can go for a walk and a talk if you want”.

“That would be good”.

“Meanwhile, I’ll keep it to myself”.

“I’d appreciate that”.

“Are you going to talk to Becca about it?”

“Probably not until after I talk to Wendy, and then Emma”.

“When you talk to Wendy, be gentle with her, okay?”

“What do you mean?”

He frowned; “I’m trying to work out how she might have arrived at the decision not to tell you she was pregnant. She must have been really torn; she must have at least considered the possibility of telling you what was happening and asking you to stay in England and help. After all, you and she had become very close. Granted, you weren’t in a good space with your own family, but she knew you were basically a good guy and you’d been giving her a lot of support since she and Mickey broke up. Surely she would have at least considered asking you to change your plans”. He paused, thought for a minute and then went on, “But then, maybe you were already in Canada when she found out she was pregnant. And she knew the two of you had moved into a sexual relationship prematurely without really being sure that you wanted to be a couple; with you being already in Canada she probably didn’t want to put any pressure on you to come back to England and marry her just because she was pregnant”.

“Okay, but…”

“No, let me finish. It probably didn’t take her long to realize that she had another option – she knew Mickey was in London, gainfully employed, and she was still at least a little bit in love with him. She also knew that in London she could go to university and work on her doctorate”. He nodded; “Yes, it’s all coming clear to me now. And I understand why she cut me out of her life so decisively: once she’d chosen to conceal the child from you she couldn’t risk any contact with me because she knew that once I found out about it I would figure out the dates, and she knew I couldn’t possibly conceal such a thing from you. But she’s got to have paid a price, hasn’t she?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, you know what Mickey was like, even when we knew him. What do you think his reaction would have been when she went to him in London and said, “Mickey, I’m pregnant, Tom’s the father and he’s gone to Canada without knowing about it. Will you please take me back, help me raise Tom’s child and support me through my doctoral study?”

I stared at him; “He must have gone ballistic”.

“Exactly. So that’s why I’m saying, be gentle with her. Think about what came of this decision she made. She married Mickey, and their marriage was so abusive that eventually she charged him with assault and he went to prison. If she hadn’t done that – if she’d called you in Canada and told you she was pregnant – you might well have come back and married her. I mean, Wendy’s a great person, but I don’t think you seriously want not to have been married to Kelly, do you?”

I shook my head emphatically; “Kelly was the best thing that ever happened to me”.

“Right. So Wendy did you a good turn twenty years ago, but she didn’t do herself any favours at all”.

“I see what you mean”.

“So – when you talk with her, be gentle, all right?”

“I’ll do my best”, I replied.

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‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 12

Link back to Chapter 11

Wendy and Owen and I got together to play music at our house on the first Saturday in December.

After we had met Wendy at my school back in October, Emma had checked her other books out of the library and read them both. She had been hoping for an opportunity to meet her again soon; in this respect, however, she was to be disappointed. A couple of weeks after our first meeting I emailed Wendy, asking if she would like to come over to play some music with Owen and me. She replied immediately, saying that she would be interested at some point but she was especially busy right then and would get back to me later. After that I heard nothing from her, and gradually I came to the conclusion that even though our meeting at the school had been enjoyable, she was not really interested in renewing our old friendship.

It was Owen who pointed out to me that there might be another explanation. “She might just be genuinely busy, you know”, he said.

“You think so?”

“Well, it’s term time right now, isn’t it?”

“I suppose so”.

He grinned at me. “You’ve forgotten when Oxford university terms run, haven’t you?”

I smiled sheepishly at him; “I guess I have”.

“Michaelmas term lasts from mid October to the end of the first week in December, and if you remember, it’s rather intense. And Wendy’s a single mother with a teenage boy still at home”.

I nodded; “She takes him to a lot of sports events, too”.

“Give her a chance; she probably hasn’t got a minute to call her own”.

“I never thought of that”.

******

Wendy called me after supper on the last Sunday in November; I was working at my desk up in my den when the phone rang. “Tom?” she said; “It’s me – Wendy”.

“Hello there – I was wondering when I would hear from you!”

“Yes, I’m sorry – I don’t get many moments to call my own once term starts. What about you – have I caught you at a bad time?”

“No, not at all; I’m just doing a bit of prep work for tomorrow”.

“Do you want me to ring you back in an hour or so?”

“No – this is fine. So how’s your term been?”

“It’s always busy – tutorials and lectures and individual conferences with students, and I do some curriculum work too”.

“Are you doing any more writing?”

“I’ve been exploring some ideas but I haven’t got anything in process at the moment”.

“Will you write about George Eliot again?”

“I don’t think so; I think I’ve said everything I’ve got to say about her. No – I’ve been doing some lectures on 18th and 19th century poetry and I’m toying with the idea of working them up into a book”.

“That would be excellent!”

“Yes, you always were a lover of poetry, weren’t you?”

“I still am”.

“I think you might enjoy some of my lectures. One of them concentrates on George Crabbe and John Clare; you were a big fan of Clare, weren’t you?”

“I still really like him”.

“You were the one who first got me interested in him; I’d never really paid much attention to him before you and I met”.

“I didn’t know that”.

“You thought I spent a lot of time ignoring you, didn’t you?”

I laughed softly; “You had pretty strong opinions. Wendy”.

“I know – I’m sorry about that”.

“I wasn’t complaining; I always enjoyed our conversations”.

“Me too. How’s Emma?”

“She’s well. She’s been reading your earlier books, actually; I think she’d love to ask you about them”.

“I would enjoy that”.

“Apart from that, she’s still busy volunteering at Marston Court, and spending time with family and friends”.

“She’s made some friends, then?”

“We’ve started going to a little Baptist church in north Oxford; she’s gotten to know some of the young people there”.

“I didn’t know you were a churchgoer”.

“Yeah, that’s something that happened since I moved to Canada. I married into a Mennonite family and it kind of rubbed off”.

“I’ve gone back to church over the last few years too”.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes – it happened after we moved back to Oxford”.

“It would be fun to compare notes”.

“I’d like that”.

“So are you interested in a visit with Owen and me?”

“Yes I am, but I want to make sure you both understand that I haven’t sung any of our old songs for a long time”.

“That’s fine, Wendy. Like I said the other week – singing or not, it would be good just to have a visit”.

“Yes, it would”.

“So when were you thinking?”

“Would next weekend work for you?”

“Saturday would work. Sunday we’re kind of tied up – it’s Emma’s eighteenth birthday”.

“Well I certainly don’t want to interrupt that! We can wait a bit longer if you want?”

“No, I think it would be fine. We’re having a family party at Owen and Lorraine’s place on Sunday evening. My sister and Emma are cooking jambalaya and I’m baking the cake, and that’s about the limit of my responsibilities”.

“Did you tell me Owen and his wife had children?”

“Yes – Andrew and Katie. They’re quite a bit younger than Emma but they get on really well with her”.

“Is that why the party’s over there?”

“No – it’s because there are going to be sixteen of us, and their house is bigger”.

“Are you sure you don’t want to wait a few more days for our visit?”

“Let me talk to Owen – I think he might enjoy a couple of hours on Saturday”.

******

She came over to my house on Saturday afternoon, dressed casually in faded jeans and an Aran sweater, her hair hanging loose to her shoulders. Owen and his family had come for lunch earlier, and then Lorraine had taken the children and Emma out for the afternoon; I had told Emma I thought Wendy would be less self-conscious about singing with us if there was no one else around.

Owen and Wendy greeted each other warmly; I made tea, and then we sat around the living room for a couple of hours, singing our old songs. Wendy asked Owen and me to sing a few by ourselves at first, but eventually she began to join in, and it quickly became clear that even though she hadn’t sung the songs for a long time she still remembered them very well.

“Nothing wrong with your memory!” Owen said mischievously after we finished one of our old favourites.

“I’ve always liked ‘Reynardine’”, she replied with a grin.

“I remember”.

“What about some newer stuff? Surely you boys haven’t stopped learning songs since we last saw each other. Do you still play in public, Owen?”

He nodded. “I’ve got a band, actually; we call ourselves ‘The Oxford Ferrymen’”.

“Is that your band?” she exclaimed with a smile; “I’ve seen posters around town from time to time”.

“Yes, we do gigs at the ‘Plough’ and a few other places; occasionally we go a bit further afield”.

“What sort of music do you play?”

“Mainly Celtic stuff; I’ve learned to play bouzouki and cittern since the last time you and I saw each other”.

“You didn’t bring them with you today, though?”

He shook his head; “Hopefully there’ll be another chance”.

We sang a few more songs, including some that Owen and I had learned in the years after we had lost touch with Wendy, and then I made another pot of tea and we talked. Wendy was sitting in Emma’s easy chair by the hearth with her feet up on a footstool; “This has been really good”, she said softly. “Thank you both”.

“It’s really great to see you”, Owen replied.

“You too, Owen. Have you always worked in Oxford?”

“Yeah – I joined a little practice after I finished my training and eventually I became one of the senior partners. Tom’s sister Becca works at our practice”.

“As a doctor?”

“Yes”.

“I didn’t know she was a doctor. Actually, I didn’t really know much about her at all; the last time I saw her I think she was about eleven. Didn’t she come to that concert we did for your mum’s music society, Tom?”

“Yes, I think she did”.

She glanced at Owen again. “You’ve got a family too, I hear?”

“Yes – I’m married to Lorraine and we’ve got two children; Andrew’s twelve and Katie’s nine. It took us a while to get going on the reproduction business”.

Wendy laughed again. “Did you already know Lorraine when we were here together?”

“No, I met her not long after you two left – in church, actually; she showed up there one Sunday in September of ’82”.

“Are you still a churchgoing family?”

“We are”.

“I’ve gone back to church myself in the last few years”.

“Tom told me that”.

“My dad’s pleased, of course”.

“Where do you go?”

“When I first started I just went to Merton Chapel, which is where I was confirmed, but it only has regular Sunday services during term time and they’re in the evenings, which isn’t very convenient for family meals. So after a couple of years I started going to St. Michael and All Angels here in New Marston; I sometimes sing in the choir and I get on pretty well with the vicar. I’m still involved in some Merton Chapel activities though, and now and again during the week I sing in their choir too, so I suppose you could say my church life is a bit schizophrenic. What about you?”

“We go to St. Clement’s; I was going there through most of my student years”.

“I went there once or twice but it was a bit too charismatic for me; I like something more traditional”.

“We three have really got the Christian spectrum covered!” Owen observed.

Wendy nodded, looking across at me; “You said you’d started going to a Baptist church?”

“Yes, but Emma and I are actually Mennonites”.

“Right – you told me your wife’s family were Mennonite”.

“Yeah – I guess I sort of married into it”.

“I expect there was a bit more to it than that”.

I nodded; “There was”.

“Do you mind me asking about it?”

“Not at all. Kelly’s dad Will Reimer was the principal of my school in Meadowvale and he and his wife were very helpful to me in my first few months there. They were pretty strong in their faith, but Kelly had strayed away from it for a while as a teenager. When I got to know her she was just finding her way back. She and I talked about it, and I also had some really good conversations with her brother Joe; he and I became really good friends. And of course I’d been getting interested in spirituality for a while; Owen and I had been talking about it before I left England”.

Owen nodded; “We exchanged a few letters about it after you moved, too”.

“We did”.

“Kelly came back to her faith, then?” said Wendy.

“She did; we made that journey together, and eventually we were both baptized on the same day”.

“An adult believer’s baptism, you mean?”

“Yes; that’s the Mennonite tradition”.

“Mennonites are pacifists, aren’t they?”

“They are”.

“So you’re not cheering for Bush and Blair and their war with Iraq?”

“No we’re not; peace and justice are a very important part of our faith for Emma and me”.

“Emma’s a practising Christian too?”

“Yes – it’s very real and personal for her”.

“That’s brilliant; I wish I could find a way to help my two make that connection”. She frowned thoughtfully; “What was it you found attractive about the Mennonite faith? I mean, I came back to the church I was raised in, but you moved to something completely different”.

I shrugged; “I didn’t really know very much about different denominations; it wasn’t as if I was evaluating all the local churches to see which one I liked the best. Kelly and her family were all Mennonites and their pastor, Rob Neufeld, had been one of the people who guided me on my way into Christian faith. So it just seemed natural that after I became a Christian I would stay with the people who had helped me find faith”. I grinned; “Rob was sneaky, actually; he invited me to play music in their church before I became a Christian. Kelly’s dad played guitar and Joe’s wife Ellie played the fiddle, and we worked up some gospel songs together, and before we knew it the people liked us and they wouldn’t let us stop!”

Wendy laughed, and Owen said, “They’re wonderful people, all of them”.

“You’ve been out there, then?” Wendy asked him.

“Oh yes – several times. Lorraine and I really loved Kelly, and of course we were kind of fond of this bloke too”.

“It was mutual”, I replied softly.

“Lorraine had difficulty conceiving when we first got married”, said Owen; “We tried for a few years and nothing seemed to work. She got really upset and angry about it, and then one time when we were out at Tom and Kelly’s on holiday Kelly spent a lot of time with her, just listening to her and loving her. She was a remarkable human being; I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone else with such a gift for sympathy and love”.

“She’d had struggles of her own, of course”, I said.

“With her cancer, you mean?” asked Wendy.

“Yes. After her first go around with it she lost both her ovaries, which meant she couldn’t have any more children. That was a real heartbreaker for her”.

“I can imagine”.

We were quiet for a moment, sipping thoughtfully at our tea, and then Owen smiled and said “So what about you, Wendy Howard; what have you been doing all these years?”

“Oh, well, my life’s not exactly been a smooth ride, I’m afraid!” She looked down at the floor, gathering her thoughts, and then said “I went to London, as you know. Mickey and I were able to work things out and we moved in together”.

“That was a big surprise for me”, I said; “You seemed so keen on staying in Oxford for your doctorate, and I was pretty sure you and Mickey were past history”.

“It might have been better if we had been. Anyway, my daughter Lisa was born about a year after we moved in together, and we got married not long after that. I worked on my doctorate at UCL, and Mickey did well in photo-journalism and set up his own business. He got to travel to all kinds of exotic locations to take photographs for magazines, and later on he got a name for going to dangerous places on assignment”.

“That must have been stressful”, I said.

“Yes. Anyway, by the time Colin was born I had my doctorate, and a couple of years later I got a job teaching at UCL. The rest you know. I wrote some books, and I got a chance about six years ago to move back to Oxford and get a fellowship at Merton. The time was right because Mickey and I had just broken up”. She paused, and then said, “He got quite violent, and the children and I were just too afraid to stay with him any more. I actually had him charged when I left; he was convicted, and he spent some time in jail. He’s out now, but he’s supposed to stay away from us. Most of the time, he does”.

Owen and I were both suddenly silent; I was amazed by the matter-of-factness with which she had summed up what had obviously been a horrific experience for her. I was just opening my mouth to speak when we heard the front door open, and after a moment Emma came into the living room with Becca behind her, both of them still wearing their coats, with shopping bags over their shoulders. “Look who we found in the covered market!” she said with a triumphant smile.

“I was shopping for ingredients for jambalaya”, said Becca, “because someone told me she’d like to have it for her birthday”. She glanced at the three of us; “Sorry – I didn’t mean to interrupt”.

“Not at all”, I replied, getting to my feet. “Becs, you probably don’t remember Wendy Howard? Wendy, this is my sister Becca”.

“Actually, I do remember you”, said Becca as Wendy got up to greet her; “I think I must have been about ten or eleven the last time I heard the three of you play together”.

“Did you hear us more than once?” asked Wendy; “I thought perhaps it had only been that one time we played for your mum’s music society”.

“You came to the house to practice a couple of times; I remember you using Mum’s music room”.

“So we did!” Wendy held out her hand, and Becca took it with a smile. “Are you going to sing some more?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know; I should be going soon”.

“Do one song for us, at least”, Emma asked eagerly; “I’ve heard so much about the three of you and I’d love to hear you play together”.

I glanced quizzically at my two partners; Wendy shrugged, and Owen grinned and said, “Take your coats off, then, while we try to think of something that won’t embarrass us too badly!”

“Is there tea in the pot?” Emma asked.

“I think there is”.

So Becca and Emma hung up their coats, Emma poured tea for them both and then they sat down with us. Owen glanced at Wendy; “What do you think?”

“What about ‘The Recruited Collier?’”

“Good choice!” Owen looked across at me; “Key of E Flat?”

“I’m on it”.

The song was not one of the pieces we had played earlier, but it had been one of our favourites years ago. Owen and I began to play a slow introduction, and after a moment Wendy took a deep breath, closed her eyes and began to sing:

“What’s the matter with you my lass, and where’s your dashing Jimmy?
Them soldier boys have picked him up, and taken him far from me.
Last pay day he went into town, and them red-coated fellows
Enticed him in and made him drunk, and he’d better have gone to the gallows”.

For the second verse of the song, I sang harmony with her:

“The very sight of his cockade it sets us all a-crying,
And me I nearly fainted twice; I thought that I was dying.
My father would have paid the smart and he ran for the golden guinea,
But the sergeant swore he’d kissed the book so now they’ve got young Jimmy”.

“When Jimmy talks about the wars, it’s worse than death to hear him.
I must go out and hide my tears, because I cannot bear him.
A brigadier or a grenadier he says they’re sure to make him,
and still he jibes and cracks his jokes, and bids me not forsake him”.

Emma was sitting on the floor, her legs stretched out in front of her and her back resting against the front of the sofa, a smile of pure pleasure on her face; Becca was sitting forward in her chair, her legs crossed, obviously captivated by the music. Wendy and Owen and I sang the last verse together:

“As I walk o’er yon stubble field, below where runs the seam;
I think on Jimmy hewing there, but it was all a dream.
He hewed the very coals we burn and when the fire I’m lighting,
To think the lumps were in his hands, it sets my heart a-beating.
So break my heart and then it’s o’er, oh break my heart my dearie;
And I lie in this cold, green ground, for of single life I’m weary”.

When the last chord died down there was a brief silence in the room, and then Becca shook her head and said, “My God – that was absolutely gorgeous!”

Emma nodded; “Beautiful!” she said softly. “I had no idea…”

Wendy coloured slightly; “You’re both very kind”.

“Will you do another one?” Emma asked.

“Oh, I don’t know”, Wendy replied; “I should be going soon. My daughter’s joining us for supper tonight, and I need to get something ready”.

“Speaking of families”, said Owen, “Did you lose mine somewhere along the way, Em?”

Emma laughed; “Lorraine told me she had a couple of other things she needed to get, so she sent me home with Becca”.

Owen gave her a knowing grin; “I see how it is!”

“That’s what I thought!”

“Are they coming back here to get me, then?”

“I think that’s the plan; Lorraine told me to tell you if there was any change you should call her on her mobile”.

“Right”.

Wendy smiled at Owen and me; “I really should be going”, she said.

We all got to our feet, and the next thing we knew, the three of us were gripping each other tight in a three-way hug. For a long moment we held each other, and when we stepped back, Wendy’s eyes were shining. “Thank you both”, she said quietly; “I really enjoyed myself”.

“So did we”, Owen replied; “Let’s do it again soon”.

“Absolutely”. Wendy turned to Emma; “Happy birthday tomorrow”, she said.

“Thanks!”

“I hear you’d like to talk about my books some time”.

Emma gave her a delighted smile; “I really would!”

“Well, we can make that happen. Get my e-mail address from your dad”.

“Thank you – I would love that!”

I followed Wendy out into the narrow hallway, took her coat down from the peg and helped her on with it. “That was very thoughtful of you”, I said; “You must be really busy”.

“Term’s over now; I’ve got a bit more free time”. She wound her scarf around her neck, zipped up her coat, and turned to face me. “Tom, I wonder if you and Emma would like to come over to Merton for a special Christmas event?”

“What sort of event?”

“I mentioned my daughter Lisa; she’s up at Christchurch reading Modern Languages, but she also sings in a chamber choir called the Radcliffe Singers, and they’re doing a Christmas carol concert at Merton Chapel on the Sunday before Christmas. It’ll be an evening event, of course”.

“A Christmas carol concert?”

“Yes. The university’s down so there aren’t many people around, but they usually get a good turnout for their concerts; if you want to come I should get tickets for you fairly soon. They’ve arranged to have a reception in hall afterwards, if you’d like to stay”.

I smiled; “I’m actually rather fond of Christmas carols”.

“They’ll probably do a few of the less well-known ones”.

“All the more interesting. Put me down for sure, and I’ll talk to Emma and see if she’s interested, too. How much are the tickets?”

She shook her head; “Come as my guests”.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course”.

“All right, then; I’ll talk to Emma and get back to you as quickly as possible”.

“Good”. She held out her hand, and I shook it rather formally. Then, a little impulsively, she leaned forward and kissed me lightly on the cheek. “This was a really good afternoon”, she said; “Thank you”.

“I’m glad you could come, and I know Owen is too”.

“I hope you have a wonderful party with Emma tomorrow”.

“I’m sure we will”.

******

Link to Chapter 13

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 11

Link back to Chapter 10

Through October and early November Emma and I gradually fell into a pattern of going out to Northwood at least one evening during the week to visit my parents. We usually went out for part of the weekend as well; if we went on Friday night we would stay until late afternoon or early evening on Saturday, and then go home so that we could attend Banbury Road Baptist Church the next morning. If we went out on Saturday morning we usually went to the village church Sunday, had lunch with my parents and then went home early in the afternoon so that I could finish my school preparations for the week ahead.

One weekend in mid-November we drove out to Northwood for supper on Friday night, intending to spend most of the weekend. Becca was on call but she was planning on joining us for supper on Saturday, and so was my Auntie Brenda. My father was getting over a mild stomach bug and was still feeling a little nauseated, so he went to bed early. I had brought some work out with me, so I asked my mother if she and Emma would excuse me for a couple of hours; “If I get this work done tonight I’ll be able to forget about school for the rest of the weekend”, I said, “or at least, ’til Sunday afternoon”.

“Of course” she replied; “Would you like to use your dad’s study?”

“Actually the kitchen table will be fine, if you don’t mind?”

“Not at all”.

So I sat in the kitchen for a couple of hours, marking assignments and then doing preparation work for the week ahead. In my early days as a teacher I had found marking tedious; reading thirty papers one after another, each one dealing with basically the same material, had a tendency to drag after a while. But gradually over the years I had come to see it as an opportunity to get inside the minds of my students; not all of them would let me in very far, but some did, and they gave me insights about themselves I would not have been able to discover in any other way.

When the marking was done I made a few general notes to cover with the classes the following week, and then did a little re-reading of some material I would be introducing to my Year Elevens on Monday. I was almost finished when my mother slipped her head around the door. “Can I come in?” she asked with a smile.

“Of course; I believe it’s your kitchen!”

“I’m just going to put the kettle on. Emma’s reading her book in the living room but she tells me she thinks you might be just about ready for a cup of hot chocolate”.

“She knows me well. I’m nearly finished here”.

“I hope I’m not interrupting?”

“No – I’ve got about five minutes to go, so by the time you boil the kettle I’ll be done”.

She came into the room, glancing at the files on the table in front of me. “I remember you talking with your brother about these long working evenings”.

“I’m used to it. Usually I’m at my desk for two hours at least two nights a week, but with this unfamiliar curriculum it’s more likely to be three. I try to keep my weekends free until Sunday afternoon but this week I got a little behind, so that’s why I’m playing catchup tonight. On Sunday afternoons I start work around three or four and I usually put in at least three hours”.

“It’s a time-consuming job”.

“True – but as Dad used to remind me frequently, the holidays are good”.

She went round to the kitchen sink and poured water into the kettle; “I’ll just put this on the stove to boil”, she said, “and then I’ll leave you alone for five more minutes”.

“Thanks”.

******

As usual I was awake early the next morning, and I went out for a solitary walk before anyone else was up. My mother was making tea by the time I got back; I took Emma a cup and then, as sometimes happened on a Saturday morning, I sat in her room with her while she was drinking it, talking with her about all kinds of things. After about half an hour she glanced at the clock beside her bed and said, “Well, I suppose Grandma’s waiting patiently to make us some breakfast”.

“Probably”.

“What about Grandpa?”

“I haven’t seen him yet”.

“He’s starting chemo again soon, right?”

“Next week, if they think he’s well enough”.

“Do you think his stomach bug is chemo-related?”

“I doubt it; it’s been a couple of months since his last dose”.

“Well”, she said, swinging her legs out of the bed, “I’m heading for the shower. Tell Grandma I’ll be down in ten minutes”.

******

By mid-morning my father had still not appeared downstairs. My mother went up to see how he was feeling, and she came down a few minutes later to tell us that he sent his apologies and would probably not be joining us for morning coffee; he was still not feeling well enough to leave his room.

“So this is a little more than a mild stomach bug”, I said.

She shrugged; “It’s persistent, anyway”.

“Should we call a doctor?”

“I’ll wait ’til after Becca comes; if she thinks it’s more serious I’ll do whatever she suggests”.

“Good plan”.

Emma had been sitting quietly in the corner reading; now she closed her book and said, “Would you like me to make him a cup of herbal tea, Grandma? It’s a lot easier on the stomach. Do you have any in the house?”.

“I think there might be some chamomile somewhere in the kitchen. We very rarely drink it; I don’t know what he’ll think”.

Emma got to her feet; “Shall I put the kettle on?”

“Alright, then, I suppose there’s no harm in trying”.

They went out to the kitchen together. I sat in the living room alone for a while, sipping my morning coffee and enjoying the sunshine pouring in the windows. It was a fine late-autumn day outside, and the weather was beckoning me; I was already planning a long walk that afternoon. I glanced at the book Emma had been reading; since finishing Wendy’s introduction to George Eliot, she had begun to slowly work her way through Daniel Deronda.

After a few moments I heard the creak of the staircase as Emma and my mother made their way upstairs, and then for a long time all was quiet. I could hear the ticking of the grandfather clock out in the hallway, and back in the kitchen the faint sound of a radio playing classical music. Finally I heard footsteps coming down the stairs; my mother came back into the room, a smile on her face, and sat down beside me. She leaned over and poured herself a cup of coffee. “I know I’ve said this before”, she said, “but you’ve raised a wonderful girl there”.

“She’s charmed her way into Dad’s good graces again, has she?”

“He was surprised, of course, but she sat down beside the bed and asked him how he was feeling. The next thing I knew she was helping him sit up a bit and putting some pillows behind his back; then he started to drink the tea she’d poured for him and she started asking him questions about this and that, and now they’re chatting away like old cronies up there”.

I smiled and nodded; “I’ve seen that happen many times. She just seems to have a way with older people, especially when they’re feeling under the weather. Kelly was like that too”.

“Yes – she’s so very much like her mother, isn’t she?” She glanced at the book in my hand; “What are you reading?”

“It’s Emma’s book actually. She’s on a George Eliot track right now”. I told my mother about our discovery of Wendy’s book, and our meeting with her; to my surprise she remembered Wendy very clearly from our student days. “Yes – you and Owen brought her out here a couple of times; you played a concert for our music society one night, didn’t you?”

“We did – I’m surprised you remember!”

“I remember it very well. It wasn’t often I got the opportunity to hear you and Owen play after you went to university, and then when Wendy joined your group – well, I think that was the only time I heard the three of you together in a concert setting. She had a marvellous voice, didn’t she?”

“Yes she did”.

“Do you think you’ll be seeing much of her?”

“I’m not sure; she seems fairly busy”.

A few minutes later I heard Emma coming down the stairs. She came into the living room, put two empty cups on the coffee tray and said “Well, I think chamomile tea was a hit”.

My mother put her hand on Emma’s. “Thank you; you’ve brought a little bit of sunshine into his life this morning. I know he sometimes seems hard and unfeeling but he’s actually really very pleased that you’re here”.

“I know he is”, Emma replied.

******

Emma and I went out for a walk for a couple of hours after lunch. She enjoyed having me show her the country walks Owen and I had taken when we were teenagers and she especially liked the footpath along the bank of the Thames, which had become a standard part of our afternoon outings. Also, it had become customary for us to drop by for half an hour at the home of George and Eleanor Foster. Eleanor’s hip was giving her a lot of trouble but George often joined us for part of our walk; he had discovered that Emma enjoyed good books and he liked talking with her about her reading.

When we arrived back at my parents’ home later in the afternoon my father was sitting in the living room with my mother. In answer to our queries, he said that he was feeling a lot better, and perhaps there was something in chamomile tea that could be marketed to the National Health Service. Then, sitting in his easy chair by the fire, he looked across at Emma and said, “Speaking of the National Health Service, what’s happening about that little glitch you ran into when you were applying for your nursing training? Have you got it sorted out yet?”

“Yes and no”, she replied quietly. “They’ve admitted I don’t really fall into either of their usual categories, so they’ve agreed to let me begin nursing training next September after only a year’s residence in the UK instead of three. But they won’t waive their policy of not funding me until I’ve lived here for three years”.

“That won’t be a problem”, I added; “As I said, I’ve got the money to cover it”.

“Where will you be going for this training?” my father asked Emma.

“Oxford Brookes – the School of Health and Social Care is right in Marston and the teaching hospital is the JR”.

“So you’d be living at home?”

“Yeah – that’s one of the nice things about it”.

“And is this a degree program or some sort of diploma?”

“A degree; that’s what I want to do – or at least make a start on, depending on how long we stay here”.

He nodded his approval; “Very wise. Now tell me – exactly how much per year is this going to cost?”

“Dad, you don’t need to worry about this”, I cut in. “As I said, I can handle it, and the chances are that before too long Emma will be able to get a paying job too, so she can help”.

“Will you just answer my question, please? How much money are we talking about?”

I was determined not to let his insistent manner irritate me. “For an overseas student it’s around six thousand pounds a year”.

“Emma’s considered an overseas student, is she? Even though she’s a British citizen?”

“Yes”.

“And that cost probably doesn’t include textbooks and other incidental expenses?”

“No, it’s just registration and tuition”.

“That’s a lot of money”. He turned to Emma; “I’d be glad to pay those fees for you”.

“Dad!” I exclaimed angrily; “Haven’t you been listening? I’ve got the money – we don’t need financial help!”

“But there must be many other things you could spend the money on; if you end up staying  for a longer period of time you may want to buy a house, and the Oxford area’s very expensive. If I cover Emma’s fees you’ll be free to use your money on other things, won’t you? And why shouldn’t I do this for my granddaughter? Surely you’re not saying you don’t ever want me to give her anything?”

“Of course I’m not saying that”. I frowned; “Are you planning on doing this for Rick’s children too?”

“They probably won’t need it; Rick’s making a lot more money than you are”.

“Dad, I really would rather you let me handle this in my own way. I’ve got enough money to cover it”.

He eyed me in silence for a moment, his face hardening. I could feel myself reverting to my fifteen year old self, and I knew that if I wasn’t careful his overbearing manner would provoke me to lose my temper.

“I don’t understand this”, he said slowly and coldly. “I’m offering to pay Emma’s fees through her time at university. This will be a real help to her because she won’t have any financial worries through her nursing training. It will be a real help to you because you’ll be freed of the expense of her education and you’ll be able to use the money you’ve saved to get ahead in other ways. And it will be a benefit to me too, because I’ve hardly seen her at all for most of her life and I haven’t had the opportunity to do her any good. But you’re sitting there telling me you don’t want this help. I find it hard to attribute that attitude to anything other than unwillingness to accept anything from me, and I find that quite offensive”.

“You’re wrong”, I said quietly; “That’s not the reason”.

“Then why?”

“As I keep telling you, I have plenty of money to cover Emma’s education, and at the moment I don’t really have any other pressing financial needs. We aren’t planning on staying here permanently so I don’t need to buy a house, and I can cover our monthly rent from my teacher’s salary with a little help from what I’m earning in rental income on our house back home. Emma and I are living simply – which is the way we’ve always lived – and we really don’t need a big infusion of cash right now”.

“Don’t be ridiculous. That car of yours won’t last very long – it’s already five years old – and anyway, I’m sure you’re going to want to make some trips over to Canada to see family and friends some time in the next couple of years, and those trips will need to be paid for. There isn’t a person alive whose daily living couldn’t be made more comfortable with a little more money. Why not let me cover Emma’s fees, at least? That way you’d have another six thousand a year as a cushion”.

I shook my head slowly. “I really don’t know what else to say. I don’t know how else to convince you that I’m fine and I don’t need your help”.

“But I’m not asking you to let me rescue you from financial difficulty; I’m asking you to let me give you a gift, so you can use some of your money on other things or save it for a rainy day. Why won’t you let me give you a gift?”

“Honestly?”

“Yes – honestly”.

“Because I know there will be strings attached”.

He looked at me coldly; “What do you mean?”

“I mean you’ll assume that providing the gift gives you the right to exert control over our lives, just like you tried to do when I was in university”.

“Don’t be ridiculous! How could I possibly exert control over you and Emma? You’re proving the absurdity of that remark right now!”

“You’ll find a way”.

He stared at me for a moment and I saw the anger in his eyes. “And you wonder why I find your attitude offensive”, he said.

“You say it’s a gift?”

“Yes”.

“Then why aren’t you planning on giving the same gift to Rick’s children?”

“As I said, Rick’s in a much better financial position than you are”.

“Maybe so, although you don’t really know anything about the financial position I’m in. But Emma’s got some advantages too; for instance, her dad’s not a workaholic. I don’t spend all my time at work and when I’m home I’m not constantly answering work-related phone calls; Emma and I actually get time to do things together. That’s got to be worth something”.

“This is not about Rick’s busy life; that’s an entirely different subject”.

“Not really; this is about you comparing your two sons – the older son who refused to go along with your plan and went off to Canada to find his own way, and the younger son who dutifully went along with the path you had planned for him and who’s now very successful and very wealthy”.

“Well, you must admit there’s some truth in that – Rick’s financial position is very good and his children will have no worries when it comes to university. And as for you refusing to go along with my plan for your life – well, I still think you made a big mistake there. If you’d stayed in England and gone into Law, Emma would be a UK resident and the NHS would be covering her fees now, and you’d be a lot better off financially than you are”.

“If I’d stayed in England”, I replied softly, “Emma wouldn’t be Emma, because I would never have met her mother, and she wouldn’t have had all the benefits of being part of the Reimer family – one of them being that in that family I never once had this kind of argument”.

He shook his head slowly; “I see”, he said coldly; “I spent your high school years being unfavourably compared to George Foster, and now I’m going to have to sit here and listen to you telling me I don’t measure up to the saintly standard set by the Reimer family. Don’t forget – I paid every penny for your five years at Oxford, even though you refused to follow the career I wanted for you! I didn’t force you to do what I wanted, or refuse to fund your education unless you went along with my wishes; I paid for the whole thing. And I was able to do that because I worked hard in the job you never approved of. Lots of parents need to ask for government help to fund their children’s education, but thanks to the career I had chosen I didn’t need to ask for handouts like that. There wasn’t even any real need for you to work in your summer holidays – you insisted on doing so, but you didn’t need to. So I’m getting rather tired of you getting on your soapbox and criticizing me for my wealth without acknowledging your debt to that wealth. I find that attitude hypocritical in the extreme”.

“You’re calling me a hypocrite?”

“In this instance, yes”.

I could feel my heart pounding. “Well, perhaps I’m not such a wealthy man as you”, I retorted, “but at least I haven’t been too busy to spend time with Emma while she’s been growing up!”

Emma had been listening quietly, but now she spoke up. “Dad”, she said softly, “please stop”.

I turned to face her; “But…”

“I think you should both stop”, she said, looking from me to my father. “This has gone a lot further than my tuition fees, and honestly, if you’re going to go after each other like this, I’d rather not go to university at all”.

“Em…”

She shook her head. “I think you should tell him, Dad”.

“I would really rather not…”

“I know, but he’ll understand”.

“Tell me what?” my father asked.

Emma fixed me with her eyes. “Please, Dad”.

“But…”

She reached out and put her hand on mine; “Then let me tell him”.

I looked at her in silence for a moment, and then I shook my head; “I’ll do it”.

“Do what?” my father demanded.

“Hush, Frank”, my mother said softly; “He’s about to tell you”.

I squeezed Emma’s hand and then sat back in my chair. “I don’t need any financial help from you, Dad”, I said. “I have a hundred thousand dollars, plus two years’ worth of interest, in a savings account for Emma. It came from Kelly’s life insurance policy. After her first bout with cancer back in 1986 she insisted on taking it out. She said it would be the smart thing to do, because…” I paused for a moment, feeling the sudden surge of emotion I had been dreading; “Because cancer sometimes recurs, and we had a child to think of”.

I saw the sudden understanding in his eyes. “Of course! I should have realized that! That’s exactly the kind of thing Kelly would have done”. He frowned thoughtfully for a moment, and then he said, “Well, that was very wise of her, but I still don’t see why you won’t let me pay Emma’s fees; then you could save that money and use it for something else in the future”.

“Oh, for God’s sake, Dad!” I cried, blinking back the sudden rush of tears; “Can’t you see that I could never live with myself if I used it for anything else? Don’t you get it, even now?”

“Oh Tom”, my mother breathed.

I wiped my eyes angrily with the back of my hand. “How could I possibly allow myself to benefit from Kelly’s death? Don’t you understand that I’d give up every penny I had, and far more besides, if I could only get her back? The only reason I haven’t given every cent of it away is that I know Kelly would never, ever want Emma to be deprived of a good education just because she’s not here any more to help me pay for it. But I can’t possibly use it for anything else; I just can’t”. I got to my feet quickly; “I’m sorry”, I said; “I need to…”

My mother reached out and put her hand on my arm. “Go”, she said quietly; “Take all the time you need”.

I nodded gratefully at her, and then turned and left the room.

******

About half an hour later I was sitting in the wing chair beside my bedroom window when I heard a quiet knock on the door.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“It’s me, Tommy”, Becca replied.

“Come in”.

She slipped into the room, closed the door quietly behind her, and then came and knelt down on the floor beside me. “Hello there”, she said, sitting back on her heels.

“Hi; did you just get here?”

“I’ve been here for about ten minutes; Auntie Brenda came out with me. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine”.

She put her hand on mine. “I heard what happened. Emma’s worried; she told me she was the one who suggested you tell Dad about the money”.

“And she was right. I should have told him a long time ago, but I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it without breaking down – which is exactly what happened”. I looked at her; “Is he down there still?”

“Yes, but he’s not saying much”.

“I still don’t think he understands how I feel”.

She frowned; “I wouldn’t be so sure, Tommy. I’ll be surprised if he brings up the idea of paying Emma’s tuition fees again”.

“You think?”

“I do. It took him a bit longer to get there, but I think he’s there now”.

I gave a heavy sigh; “I hope so”.

She squeezed my hand. “Come on”, she said; “Every minute you spend up here by yourself makes it harder for you to come down. Mum’s made a pot of tea and she and Auntie Brenda are working on dinner; let’s go down and give them a hand”.

******

Emma and I drove back to our place early on Sunday morning to go to church. Later, when we were sitting at the table eating a light lunch, she was strangely quiet. Eventually I said, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah”.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m just thinking”.

“About anything in particular?”

She nodded, looking at me seriously. “Why do you and Grandpa have such a hard time getting along with each other? I sometimes think you really hate each other”.

“That would be a pretty strong word”.

She shrugged; “I’m just telling you what I see”.

“Fair enough”.

“So – what’s it all about?”

“Well”, I said reluctantly, “that’s a big subject”.

“I thought it would be”.

“You want the whole story, do you?”

“Yes”.

I looked down for a few minutes, collecting my thoughts; then I said, “Okay, but it’s not a pleasant story, Em”.

“I understand that”.

I took a sip of my coffee and looked down at the plate in front of me. After a moment I said, “I don’t remember him being around much when I was little; he was busy building up the law firm, and he worked long hours and often brought work home with him. He pretty much left the day-to-day upbringing of his children to my mum. I have no memories of walks or games with him when I was a kid”. I paused for a moment; “Are you really sure you want to hear this?”

“Yes; I want to understand”.

I nodded; “Okay. Well, despite his absences, he was the kind of father who likes to control his kids’ lives and likes to push them to go further and achieve more. Nothing was ever good enough for him; no matter how hard you tried he’d always be able to find things to criticize. He had a wicked temper too; when he got angry he’d say things he shouldn’t have said, really hurtful things, and I was a sensitive kid, although I did my best to hide it. And like I told you a while back, he had definite plans for me”.

“Becoming a lawyer and taking over his practice”.

“Yes”. I gave her a wry grin. “That’s how ‘the Great War’ began; that’s what Owen called it. It started when I was fifteen. I had known since my early teens that Dad was raising me to be a lawyer, but by then I’d met Owen and his dad and I’d begun to realize for the first time that maybe my relationship with my dad wasn’t a normal one. Owen’s dad was my first taste of what a father is meant to be like; he was the one who first inspired me to want to be a teacher, too.

“I told Dad when I was fifteen that I wanted to become a teacher and we fought about it for two years. He’d followed in his father’s footsteps, and he’d just assumed I’d do the same. He was determined to stop me from screwing up my life, and I was just as determined to do what I wanted to do.

“It all came to a head in my last year of high school. We had a spectacular shouting match that lasted for hours, but in the end Mum took my side, and Dad knew he was beaten. From then on he very rarely spoke to me. I studied in Oxford for five years and every day he drove into Oxford to work, but he never once came to see me or asked me out for a drink or made any attempt at all to contact me.

“But even though I hardly ever saw him I could still feel his disapproval. Whenever I went home for holidays the atmosphere in the house was ice cold. He made no secret of how he felt; he was paying the bills so he ought to have the right to tell me what I should be studying and what I should be doing with my life. In his eyes paying for my education was a claim on my future, and I was rejecting that claim. After I finished my three-year English degree he put the pressure on again; he said it wasn’t too late for me to change my mind and I could still transfer to Law.

“But I refused, and for a few months after I started working on my PGCE he was angry with me again. But then he changed tactics; he started to try to control my teacher training and my plans for the future. He criticized the schools I chose to go to for my practicums – especially the one I went to in south Oxford, because it was in a poor area of the city. And then he started looking at job advertisements for me. Once toward the end of my second year of training he even called a school on my behalf to try to arrange an interview. He had no sense at all of how inappropriate that was; when I challenged him on it he said he didn’t want me throwing my life away teaching in third-rate schools on council estates. That’s how far he was willing to go in trying to control my life”.

“And that’s one of the reasons you don’t want him to pay my fees – because you’re afraid he’ll try to control my life too?”

“Yes”.

She put her hand on mine; “Oh, Dad”, she whispered.

I was quiet for a moment and then I said, “In the end I decided that the only way to be free of his interference was to leave the country. There was a student from Canada at our college and he told me about openings for teachers on the prairies. I made all the inquiries in secret, I applied for jobs and initiated the immigration procedure, all without telling Mum and Dad. I knew that once Dad found out he’d go ballistic.

“And I was right – he did”. I stopped talking, took a sip of my coffee and stared off into space. “I had lied to the whole family and told them I was going to get a job in Reading. Then a week before I was due to leave I told them the truth. We were all in the living room, including Rick and Becca; Becca was eleven at the time. I told Mum and Dad I had some news for them: I’d decided to move to Canada and I had a job at a school in Saskatchewan. Mum started to cry, Becca started to cry, and then Dad started to shout. He called me an idiot and a fool and a sneaking liar, and then he took his walking stick and attacked me with it”.

“Oh my God!”

“He struck me three times across my shoulders and twice across my lower back. Mum was crying and pleading with him to stop, but he didn’t, not until I managed to get out of the room and out of the house”.

I had avoided this scene in my memory for years, and as I was retelling it the raw anger was resurfacing. When I was able to continue I said, “So a week later I flew to Canada. I avoided home for that last week; I stayed at Owen’s. And as you know, since then I’ve only come to England a few times and dad has never been to Canada to visit – not for my wedding, and not even for your mum’s funeral”.

She looked at me for a moment without speaking, and then she squeezed my hand; “I don’t know what to say”.

“There isn’t really very much to say”.

She shook her head slowly; “You’re amazing, Dad”.

Amazing? Where did that come from?”

“When you heard that he was dying you came over here anyway, despite all you’ve told me, and you’ve been doing your best to be patient with him. And you’ve been so different in the way you brought me up – so patient and gentle and loving. Where did you learn to be such a good father?”

“Sometimes I’m not sure I am”.

“Yeah, you are”. She frowned; “I remember you told me once that you and Auntie Becca had a quarrel when she was younger”.

“Yes; she felt really hurt because I hadn’t told her what I was going to do: in fact, I’d lied to her about it. I’d told her the same thing I told the others – that I was moving to Reading to take up a teaching job there. She felt like I’d betrayed her; she refused to read any of my letters for the next two years. It was the only time in our lives that there was ever anything like a breach between us”.

“What brought you back together?”

I smiled at her; “Your mum, of course”.

“How?”

“We came to visit here two months before we got married. We attended Rick and Alyson’s wedding, and two weeks later Owen and Lorraine got married. But in between times we stayed at Northwood, and your mum was just herself; she spent time with Becca and listened to her and won her trust. And eventually she got Becca to talk to me, and we apologized to each other, and after that things got a lot better”.

“Auntie Becca’s in your wedding pictures”.

“Yes, your mum asked her while we were here if she’d be one of her bridesmaids. Becs was pretty excited”.

Emma leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “I love you”, she said.

“I love you too, honey. Do you understand a little more about Grandpa and me now?”

“Yes”.

“Would you like some more coffee?”

“You sit tight; I’ll make it”.

She got up, picked up our mugs and went across to the kitchen sink; she rinsed out the cafetière, and then filled up the kettle and plugged it in. I watched her for a moment, and then got up and went to stand beside her as she was taking the ground coffee down from the cupboard. “You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about this since yesterday, and I’m wondering if I’m not just being stubborn”.

She rinsed out the mugs, wiped them with a tea towel and stood them on the counter; “You think you should let Grandpa pay my fees?”

“I don’t know. What I said is still true; I honestly don’t know if I could bring myself to use your mum’s life insurance money for anything else”.

“I understand”.

“But maybe I’m wrong about your grandpa’s motives. Maybe at seventy-two, with terminal cancer, he really doesn’t have the energy to try to control people’s lives any more. He certainly hasn’t shown any desire to control yours; quite the opposite, in fact”.

“What do you mean?”

I smiled at her; “Well, you have your mum’s way with you. I think he really likes you”.

She shrugged; “Maybe. I know he’s old and tired and he feels ill a lot of the time, and somewhere down inside there he must be scared, even if he won’t admit it. I try to keep that in mind when I’m with him”.

I bent and kissed her on the forehead. “Emma Dawn Masefield”, I said, “you are one special kid”.

She grinned at me; “You’re not bad yourself, Dad!”

“Thanks”.

“Do you have time for a walk after we have coffee, or do you have to get right down to work?”

“I have time; let’s wash the dishes up while the kettle’s boiling, and then we can have our coffee and go out for a while”.

******

Link to Chapter 12

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 10

Link to Chapter 9

******

Tuesday September 16th would have been Kelly’s 45th birthday. I woke up just after five o’clock and couldn’t get back to sleep, so eventually I got up as quietly as I could, got dressed and went out for an early morning walk. It had rained during the night and the roads and sidewalks were still wet; the sky was clearing but the air was cool, and I was glad of the sweater I had put on under my light jacket.

When I got back to the house at around six-thirty I found Emma in the kitchen in her pyjamas, boiling a kettle of water. “I heard you go out”, she said quietly as she poured the hot water into the tea pot; “I thought you might like a cup of tea when you got back”.

“Thank you; maybe I’ll have a quick shower first and then have my tea with you after, if that’s okay?”

“Sure”. She covered the tea pot with a cosy, then turned to me and put her arms around me. “I love you, Dad”, she whispered.

“I love you, too”, I replied, enfolding her in my arms.

We were quiet for a couple of minutes, holding each other, and then she said, “You’re nice and warm”.

“Are you cold?”

“A little”.

“It’s damp outside; it makes a difference”.

“Yeah; I should have put my bunny hug on before I came down”.

I kissed her on the top of her head; “I’d better get moving here. Will you be okay for a minute while I go take a shower?”

“I’ll be fine”. She frowned, and then said, “Well, not fine, but you know what I mean”.

“I know”.

“Are you going to walk down to the school this morning?”

“Yes”.

“Do you mind if I walk with you?”

“Of course not; I’d be glad of your company. What are you doing for the rest of the day?”

“Later on this morning I’m going to meet Grandma at the hospital; we’ll visit with Grandpa for a bit and then we’re going to go out for a coffee”. She paused, and then added, “Grandma knows what day it is today”.

“I know she does”.

She reached up and kissed me on the cheek; “Go take your shower or this tea will be even stronger than you like it by the time you’re done”.

******

It took longer than a few days for my father to get out of hospital. The infection proved to be very stubborn; it was actually two weeks before he was able to go home, and even then he was very weak and not able to do much more than sit in his armchair. His doctors decided that he needed a longer period of time for the white blood cells in his body to build up again, and so they reluctantly decided to give him a two-month break from chemo. “It’s a shame”, his oncologist said to my mother, “because the spread of the cancer is slowing; the chemo’s having a good effect. It’s always a balancing act trying to get the dosage right; that’s the problem we’re facing”.

The JR was within easy reach of my school, and while my father was a patient there I dropped in to visit him almost every day after classes. I knew he was still uncomfortable with this but I persisted anyway, and after a few days he seemed to get used to the idea. Most days I only stayed for twenty minutes or so, and then walked home to Marston. Emma went down to see him regularly, and she and my mother frequently had lunch together at the hospital cafeteria. She and I took turns with cooking our evening meal, and with both of us busy during the day we rarely sat down to eat before about six thirty or seven.

By the time my father went home it was almost the end of September, and shortly after that Emma finally got word that all her security checks had come through and she could start at Marston Court any time she liked. She began almost immediately; some days she helped the recreation co-ordinator with activities for the residents, some days she helped at mealtimes or assisted with baths, and some days she went over very early to help some of the residents who needed a little more assistance with getting up in the mornings. She was busy almost every day but I could see immediately that she was enjoying herself.

By then we had made the decision to make Banbury Road Baptist Church our new spiritual home; we had accepted Kathy MacFarlane’s invitation to try it out earlier in the month, and we had both enjoyed it. I liked the warm, friendly atmosphere, the mix of traditional and contemporary music and the thoughtful preaching of Kathy’s husband Jim. Emma had also enjoyed getting to know Jim and Kathy’s two children, Matthew and Alanna; she and Alanna were the same age and they shared a love of music, but she liked talking with Matthew too, and the three of them quickly became friends.

******

At school I was gradually adjusting to my new environment. The buildings were different, the students wore uniforms, and their culture was urban rather than rural, but despite these superficial contrasts, the kids were much the same as they had been in Canada. I had the same range of abilities to cope with in each class, the one major difference being the large number of kids from ethnic minorities.

Colin Kingsley continued to be one of my challenges; he was cheerful and co-operative, but he was obviously struggling in most of his academic courses. I gave him extra tutorial help, and did my best to be supportive and encouraging, but none of this seemed to be having much impact on his progress.

Apart from sports the one area in which he was performing very well was his design and technology courses, especially the woodwork and carpentry he was doing with Simon Bennett. I had met Simon a couple of times, but in early October we arranged to get together specifically to talk about Colin; we met after classes one afternoon at Simon’s woodwork shop. He was a rough-hewn Yorkshireman of about my age, with a big nose and a rascally look about him, and I quickly warmed to him.

He showed me some of Colin’s work, and I saw immediately how good it was. “I’m not worried about Colin”, Simon said. “He’s never going to be an academic but right now the building trade’s crying out for lads like him. Nowadays lots of parents don’t want their kids to go into the trades of course; they want them to go off to university and get degrees. Fortunately Colin’s mum’s not like that; she’s not trying to pressure him into an academic life when she knows he’s not suited for it. She’s really supportive about his sports interests too; she goes to all his football games and encourages him in his running and all that”.

“She’s okay with the idea of him being a carpenter?”

“As far as I know; she’s always been positive about it at parent-teacher interviews”.

“What about his dad?”

He frowned and shook his head. “Colin never says much about him; I get the sense that there’s some bad feeling there”.

“Wendy and Mickey are divorced, I hear”.

“Yeah”. He frowned; “Do you know them?”

“I used to; Wendy and I were friends during my last two years of university, but we lost touch with each other a long time ago”.

“Well, you’ll be seeing each other again before too long”.

“Yes, I know”.

******

The next day I had a meeting after school with Margaret Greer, who was Head of Year Eleven and my immediate superior in the tutorial system. Margaret’s office was delightfully disorganized, and she had to move a pile of books to make room for me to sit down. We talked about several of my students who were struggling in one way or another, and eventually our conversation turned to Colin. Like Simon, it turned out that Margaret was not seriously worried about him.

“He’ll never be one of our great academic successes, but then he probably doesn’t need to be, does he? I expect he’ll leave school at the end of this year and go to a vocational college or something”.

“Yes, Simon Bennett showed me some of his work yesterday; he’s got an amazing talent for cabinet making”. I frowned. “It actually feels a little surreal having him in my classes. I knew his mum when we were in university”.

“Oh yes?”

“She was doing her masters in English, and I was doing my teacher training. But then I went to Canada, and she went to London, and we lost touch with each other”.

“She’s an excellent person – very supportive of Colin. I’ve taught both her children”.

“She has more than one?”

“Oh, you didn’t know about Lisa? She’s Colin’s older sister; she’s been at university for a couple of years now. Excellent student – she specialized in Languages and she went out of here with A2s in English, French, German and Latin. She’s reading Modern Languages at university now – here in Oxford I think, but I can’t remember which college. I taught her French and German; she was a real delight to have in class. She’s got a very good ear for it; she sailed through her A2s with very little trouble”.

“Funny how siblings can be so different!”

“Isn’t it? That’s so often the way, though. So you had a meeting with Simon then?”

“Yes. I saw in Colin’s file that he was doing well in Simon’s classes so I thought I should find out more”.

“Good for you. Simon can be a bit of a rough diamond but I’m a big fan of his. Some people at this school are a bit snobbish about the vocational classes we offer, but for kids like Colin they’re vital. Simon stands up for them, and he speaks his mind; sometimes he annoys people but at the end of the day there’s absolutely nothing he wouldn’t do for his pupils, and I approve of that”.

“I quite liked him, actually”.

“Good; if you two keep in touch about Colin, that’ll be a big help”.

******

In mid-October, just before the end of term holiday, the Year Eleven short reports were due to go home. At the end of Colin’s report I typed the words, “Interview requested”; then, on a separate piece of paper, I wrote a handwritten note:

Wendy:

You said on the phone the other week that we’d probably see each other at parent-teacher interviews. Well, now’s the time! Colin’s struggling a bit, as I’m sure you know. Please call or email me to set up an appointment. The official appointments are on Wednesday and Thursday next week, late afternoon or evening, but I could also do Friday late afternoon if that’s better for you. Please let me know. It will be nice to see you again.

Tom

Three days later I found a not from Wendy in the in-box of my school e-mail account:

Tom:

Friday 24th at four would work quite well for me for an interview. I look forward to seeing you again too.

Wendy.

******

I was just finishing my last tutorial on Friday when Wendy slipped quietly into my classroom; I saw her out of the corner of my eye as I worked with one of my Year Eleven students on a history project. When we were done I praised the girl and told her to keep up the good work over the holidays. She laughed, wished me a good holiday and left the room, and I got to my feet and went over to greet Wendy.

She was wearing a formal coat over a wool sweater and grey skirt. Her dark hair had a few streaks of grey in it, and there were some lines around her eyes, but apart from that her face was barely altered. I smiled and held out my hand to her. “It’s been a long time, Wendy”, I said quietly.

She took my hand and gave me a slow smile. “You look well, Tom; short hair suits you”.

I laughed; “I can barely remember having long hair, but I guess the last time I saw you…”

“It was almost down to your shoulders”.

“I cut it short in about 1984, I think”.

“How’s your dad doing?”

“He’s on a break from chemo right now”.

“Does that mean things are going well?”

I shook my head; “He got a nasty infection and he had to be in hospital for a couple of weeks. His white blood cell counts were just too low, so they had no choice; they had to give him time to build them back up again”. I smiled at her; “How about you; are your parents still alive?”

“They are – a bit old and frail, but they’re living in retirement down in Chelmsford, not far from my brother”.

“I read your latest book; congratulations!”

She smiled with pleasure. “Thank you! I hope you enjoyed it?”

“I really did; I found myself remembering some of the conversations we used to have in our last year”.

She laughed softly; “Hopefully I’ve learned a bit since 1982! How did you happen to come across it, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Completely by accident actually, in Blackwells, toward the end of August. That’s how I discovered you were back in Oxford”.

“Oh, right”.

“Well, come and sit down, and we can talk about Colin”.

She followed me over to the corner of my classroom; I offered her a seat beside my desk and sat down in my own chair. “Colin’s a pretty amazing cabinet builder”, I said.

“Have you seen his work?”

“I’ve been down to the woodwork shop to have a look; I was quite impressed. I’ve had a conversation with Simon Bennett about him”.

“He really likes Mr. Bennett”.

“Yes, I know”. I sat back a little in my chair. “So – he’s doing well in his design and technology courses and he’s good at sports, but as you know he’s struggling in his academic subjects”.

“Yes”.

 “I’m new here but my colleagues tell me this isn’t a new story with him; I’m assuming you’ve tried everything there is to try?”

“I think I have. Of course I can’t sit with him every night but I ask to see his journal, and I remind him about homework and I work with him regularly. I also try to encourage him in his other activities; I go to his football games and athletics meets and we do a lot of things together. I actually really enjoy his company and I think he enjoys mine”.

“What about his dad? I understand he lives in London”.

“Yes”.

“How do they get along?”

She shook her head; “It’s not a good relationship. Actually, at the moment they don’t see each other at all”.

“I’m sorry to hear that”.

She was quiet for a long time, looking down at the floor, and I began to wonder if I had said something to upset her. But eventually she looked up at me again; “Mickey’s involvement in Colin’s life was always part of the problem. The reason I left him was that he was abusing me. He couldn’t control his temper, and I got tired of being assaulted. Since our divorce I’ve done my best to keep his involvement in the children’s lives to a minimum”.

“I’m very sorry; I didn’t know”.

She shook her head; “Of course you didn’t; there’s always more to the story, isn’t there?”

“There is”. I looked down at my desk for a moment and then said “Look, the truth is that I’m not really worried about Colin; we all know not everyone’s cut out to be an academic, and with the skills he’s got he’s not going to have any difficulty finding a job. But I’m just wondering if there’s anything more we can do to help him with his academic work, even just a little. Would you like to go through his classes with me for a minute?”

“Yes, of course”.

She moved her chair over beside mine, and for a few minutes I took her through the list of classes Colin was taking, going over my records, talking with her about the homework he had handed in and the marks he had received. I noticed that she remembered many of his assignments, and on occasion she made comments about particularly difficult ones and how he had stayed up late working on them. When we were finished I sat back, smiled at her and said “Well, I’m impressed”.

“With what?”

“With you; you’re really on top of all this”.

“I try to be, anyway”. She shrugged and looked at me, tilting her head a little in a characteristic pose that I remembered well. “In my mind I’ve accepted the fact that he’s not going to be a university student, but I suppose somewhere inside I still keep hoping that if I just try hard enough with him something will click eventually”.

“Spoken like a true parent”.

“You’re a parent too, you said?”

“Yes”. I pointed to the small framed photographs of Emma and Kelly on the corner of my desk. “That’s my Emma; she’s almost eighteen”.

“May I see?”

I reached over, picked up the photograph and handed it to her. She looked at it in silence for a moment, then glanced across at its mate on the desktop; “That must be her mother?”

“Yes”.

“They look so much alike; are you a close family?”

“We were, but Kelly died of cancer two and a half years ago, so now it’s just Emma and me”.

“I’m sorry; I can’t begin to imagine…”

“No”. I shrugged; “She had two bouts with cancer, but she came through the first one alright. We always knew it might come back, though. Still, we had fifteen more years…”

“Is Emma all right?”

“Most of the time she is. Like me, she has her days now and again”.

“Is she in school here?”

“She finished her Grade Twelve back home in June. She’s volunteering at a nursing home in New Marston right now; she’s hoping to go into nursing training as soon as we can get all the red tape worked out. I think she’ll be pretty good at it”.

“You’re obviously very proud of her”.

I nodded; “I only have one child, but I’ve been really lucky with her”.

She looked down at Emma’s photograph again. “She’s a very beautiful young woman”.

“She is; she takes after her mum that way – and in other ways, too”. I gave her a smile and said, “Anyway, getting back to Colin…”

“Yes; is there anything else I need to know?”

“Well, we should probably talk about his mock exams”.

“Right”.

“You know they’re coming up at the end of November, and you know how it works – he has to do well in the mocks or the school won’t recommend that he take his GCSEs. Even if he’s planning to go straight from here to a technical college or something like that, it’ll be a real help if he’s got even a couple of good GCSEs under his belt”.

“So you’re telling me the next four weeks are crucial”.

“That’s right. I don’t have anything new to say to you about helping him study – you’re already doing it, and more besides. But I’m going to try to impress on him the importance of these mock exams, and it would be helpful if you would do the same”.

“I’ll do my best”.

“I assume he’s planning on leaving at the end of this academic year?”

“Yes; he wants to go into cabinet making”. She gave me another smile; “He actually made new cabinets for our kitchen a couple of years ago, when he was only fourteen”.

“It must be encouraging for him that you let him do that”.

She laughed; “He gets quite embarrassed about them now; he says they’re not up to acceptable standards. I know he’ll replace them sooner or later”.

“Has he always been interested in woodwork?”

“Since he was a little boy; he used to watch my dad puttering around in his workshop, so after a while Dad started teaching him things”.

“I thought your dad was a clergyman?”

“He was – he is – but he’s always enjoyed carpentry on the side too, ever since I can remember”.

“That’s neat; I enjoy people with multi-faceted personalities”.

She laughed; “That’s one way of putting it!”

At that moment there was a knock on the door of my classroom. “Excuse me a minute”, I said; “I’ll just see who that is”. I got to my feet, went to the door and opened it to find Emma standing there, an impish smile on her face.

“Did you get lost?” I asked; “If I remember correctly, home’s in the other direction!”

She laughed and reached up to kiss me on the cheek. “I thought I might walk home with you”, she replied; “I’ve been doing baths, and we finished about half an hour ago. Are you almost ready to go?”

“I’m nearly done. Come in for a minute; there’s someone here I want you to meet”.

She followed me into the room, and I said to her, “Emma, this is Doctor Wendy Howard. Wendy, I want you to meet my daughter Emma”.

Wendy got to her feet, shook hands with Emma and said, “Your dad’s just been telling me about you”.

Emma grinned; “You’re Wendy Howard the writer, aren’t you? I’ve been reading your book about George Eliot; it’s amazing!”

“Thank you”.

“Emma’s a great reader”, I said; “She’s been helping herself to books from my bookshelf for a long time”.

“I read Middlemarch earlier this year”, Emma added, “and then The Mill on the Floss”.

Wendy nodded; “Good choices”.

“Thanks. And you used to sing with Dad and Uncle Owen, right?”

“I did, although it seems a very long time ago now”.

“Dad’s got a couple of pictures of the three of you in his old photo album; he used to have one on the wall of our house back in Meadowvale”.

“Wearing the worst early 1980s fashions, no doubt?”

“Yeah, the clothes are kind of cheesy”, Emma agreed. “But Dad told me once that you had one of the most beautiful singing voices he’d ever heard in his life”.

Wendy smiled; “His memory may not be as good as it used to be. Anyway, I’m afraid I’ve got to be getting along”.

“Listen”, I said, “would you be interested in getting together with Owen and me some time in the not-too-distant future?”

She smiled; “You mentioned that on the phone the other week”.

“Well, I have some good memories…”

“I know; me too”. She hesitated for a moment, and then said, “Let me think about it. My life’s quite busy, and it really has been a long time since I’ve sung any of those old traditional songs”.

“Do you still listen to them?”

“I do, but most of my singing over the last few years has been in choirs”.

“I understand. Singing or not, it would be good for the three of us to spend some time together again”.

She nodded slowly; “Yes it would. Still, like I said, let me think about it; I’ve got your number, so I’ll give you a ring”.

“Okay”.

“It was lovely to meet you, Emma, and good to see you again, Tom; I’ll have a talk with Colin about what you’ve said. Thanks for all your help with him”.

“Not at all. I’ll look forward to hearing from you”.

“Right; bye for now”.

******

“How did she come to be visiting you in your classroom?” Emma asked me as we walked home together.

“It was a parent-teacher interview; her son’s in one of my classes”.

She glanced at me in surprise; “You didn’t tell me that”.

“I guess not”.

“Any particular reason?”

“Not really. He’s in my tutor group, too”.

“Quite the coincidence”.

“I guess so”.

“You haven’t talked about Wendy Howard very much over the years, Dad”.

“Well, I kind of lost touch with her after I moved to Canada”.

“But you had her picture on the wall for a long time”.

“A picture of the three of us, you mean”.

“Yeah. Still…”

I shook my head. “I know what you’re thinking, Em”, I said quietly, “but Wendy was never my girlfriend. We were good friends for a while, though, and I’m glad to have made contact with her again”.

She grinned at me; “I’ll admit I was curious”.

“I could see that”.

“I’ve always assumed you and Mom had other dating relationships before you met; I wouldn’t have been upset if she’d been your girlfriend”.

“Well that’s a relief!”

We both laughed, and I felt a raindrop on my head. “Do you have your umbrella in that backpack?” I asked.

“Of course; I’m learning to be a good Brit!”

“I think you’re going to need it”.

******

Link to Chapter 11

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 9

Link back to Chapter 8

******

Eric’s birthday party was the occasion for our first visit to Rick and his family in their house at Cumnor Hill; it was only a few years old, and was situated well back from the road on a sizeable lot behind a high hedge. The ground floor windows were all latticed, and there was a large double garage on one side of the house. There were several cars already parked in the driveway when we arrived; I recognized my father’s Rover, along with Becca’s Renault and Rick’s Range Rover. I pulled my Escort up behind them, turned off the engine, and glanced across at Emma; she gave me a wry grin and said, “I smell money!”

“In a social activist mood this afternoon, are we?”

She laughed. “Actually, I was expecting this; Sarah told me about it”. She glanced at the cars on the driveway; “Look’s like Auntie Brenda’s not here yet”.

“Unless Becca picked her up. Shall we go in?”

“Sure”.

******

Alyson met us at the front door, dressed in jeans and a white blouse; she smiled warmly at us and said, “Welcome to our home; I’m so glad the two of you could come!”

She led us through the reception hall, and I noticed the woodblock flooring and the dark polished staircase leading up to the bedrooms. The living room had the same woodblock flooring, partially covered by a colourful rug; there was an open brick fireplace with a tiled hearth, and at the back of the room French windows opened onto the large back garden. Off to the left, an arched opening led through to the kitchen area.

My brother was sitting on an easy chair as we came into the room, talking with Mum and Dad and Becca who were sitting on the chesterfield across from him; on the glass coffee table between them there were several plates of hors d’oeuvres and a tray with a coffee pot and some cups. When he saw us, Rick got to his feet and held out his hand to me. “Good to see you”, he said; “Any trouble finding the place?”

“No, it was pretty straightforward. Is Auntie Brenda not here yet?”

“She rang a few minutes ago to say she’d be here about five”.

Emma glanced at the open French doors; “Is Eric out back, Uncle Rick?” she asked.

“He is. He’s got a few friends with him, and Sarah and Anna are out there too. Feel free to go and join them, Emma, or stay with us old folks if you like”.

“Maybe we’ll both go out for a few minutes and greet the birthday boy”, I said.

“Cup of coffee to take with you?”

“That would be nice – thank you”.

“How about you, Em?”

“I’m fine thanks”.

******

Out behind the house there was a long lawn dotted here and there with trees and shrubs. The French windows opened onto a stone patio with a few lawn chairs arranged around a circular table; Eric and one of his friends were playing guitar there, with a few others sitting around listening, including Sarah and Anna. Eric looked up and smiled when he saw Emma; “Did you bring your guitar?” he asked.

“I didn’t think about it; sorry!”

We sat with them for a while, listening to the songs and chatting on and off with the other young people. I was taking in my surroundings, speculating about how much this luxurious property was worth in the inflated market of Oxford, and wondering what my brother had thought when he had seen the little house Emma and I were renting.

After about half an hour we went back inside; Emma and Sarah slipped upstairs to Sarah’s room for a while, and I joined the growing company in the living room. Becca and Alyson were sitting together on one of the couches; I helped myself to another cup of coffee and sat down with them.

“How was the music?” Becca asked.

“Very enjoyable. I didn’t quite catch who the other guitarist was, but they sounded good together”.

“Jeremy Venn”, Alyson said; “He’s Eric’s best friend”. She shook her head; “I’m sorry I didn’t think to ask Emma to bring her guitar along; I’m sure Eric would have enjoyed that”.

“Don’t worry about it; there’ll be other times”.

“Have you and Emma had a busy week?”

“It’s getting busier, with school starting and all that. She’s about to start volunteering at a local nursing home, too”.

“Does she like that kind of thing?”

“Very much”.

“Was it Kelly who got her interested?”

“Partly”.

Alyson shook her head slowly; “It doesn’t seem that long ago that she and Eric and Sarah were babies”.

“That’s for sure”. I frowned; “You have an older sister, don’t you?”

“Yes, Sheila; she’s three years older than me”.

“I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen her since your wedding, but I remember you and Rick talking about her a few times. Wasn’t she married to a banker?”

“Yes – Alistair Cameron. Unfortunately they broke up a few years ago; he’s living in Switzerland, and Sheila’s back in Edinburgh working for my dad”.

“Did they have any children?”

“Two boys, Ewan and David; they live with their mum. Ewan’s sixteen and David’s thirteen”.

“That’s tough on the kids when a marriage breaks up; Kelly’s cousin Brenda went through something like that”.

She nodded; “Sheila and I weren’t especially close while she was married, but she tells me it had been going wrong for a long time. Of course, I never saw any of that”.

“What do we really know about what goes on in other people’s marriages?”

“Isn’t that the truth? Sheila and Alistair always looked fine to me; I suppose they were just good at keeping things private”.

“Brenda and Gary were the same”.

“Brenda and the kids seem to be doing alright”, said Becca.

“They are. Of course Bren’s always busy with the Beanery; she tells me owning a coffee shop is a lot like being married!”

“It’s been a long time since she and Gary split”.

“Ten years”.

“I was with you when it first came out”.

“That’s right, you were; it was when we had the first Reimer family reunion”.

Becca shook her head slowly; “It doesn’t seem like ten years ago”.

“It must have been a bit overwhelming for you”, Alyson said to Becca, “walking into the middle of a big family event like that. You wouldn’t have known many people there, would you?”

“Actually I knew quite a few of them; I’d visited Meadowvale almost every year since about 1987, and Tommy’s father in law usually hosted a family barbecue to welcome me. When I was there this year for Emma’s grad they all greeted me like a long lost cousin”. She smiled at me; “They’re always so good at making me feel like part of the family”.

“You are part of the family; that’s how they’ve always seen it, since the first time they met you”.

“I know”.

******

Supper was served around six; it was a professionally catered buffet laid out on the dining room table. I noticed that my father stayed in his chair in the living room while my mother filled his plate for him; he had been coughing on and off, and from time to time I saw Becca watching him, a little frown on her face.

“Is Dad okay?” I asked her at one point when we were both refilling our plates at the same time.

“I don’t think so; I think he’s got a chest infection”.

“Should we do anything?”

“I asked him earlier on if he was feeling okay, and he just about bit my head off”.

“That would be a ‘no’, then?”

“I’m afraid so”.

******

After the birthday cake had been cut and shared out, it was time for Eric to open his gifts. The young people had been sitting in one corner of the room by themselves, but now Emma came and sat herself down on the floor in front of me, leaning her back against my knees.

Eric received many gifts, some of them quite expensive. Emma and I had given him a CD and a card with a cheque for £50. Eric read the card out loud: “This is the first £50 toward your new guitar”. He beamed over at us; “Thanks!” he said.

“Are you getting a new guitar?” Rick asked; “I thought you already had one”.

“He’s getting to be a really good player”, I replied; “but a quality guitar would do a lot for him”.

My brother shrugged his shoulders and smiled awkwardly. “If you say so; I can’t claim to be an expert on the subject!”

When the gift opening was over the conversations continued in different parts of the room. Rick came over and sat down on a hard chair beside Emma and me, a cup of coffee in his hand; “Thanks for coming”, he said, “and thanks for your gifts for Eric”.

“Thanks for having us, Uncle Rick”, said Emma; “It’s really nice to be able to come to family birthdays and stuff”.

“Emma’s got one coming up soon”, I added.

“How old are you going to be, then?” Rick asked her.

“I’ll be eighteen on December 7th”.

“Ah – a party of some significance!” He grinned at me; “This is when you surrender all responsibility for her, is it?”

I laughed; “She’s been pretty responsible for a long time”.

He frowned; “I wish I could teach my son a bit of that. You know, no offence intended, but I’d prefer it if you didn’t give him too much encouragement in this guitar-playing obsession. It’s a great relaxation, I can see that, and for you two that’s all it is, but the trouble is he’s got this idea in his head that he can become a professional musician, and I can’t see anything but grief on that path”.

“It could be challenging, I guess”, I replied.

“Well, do you know anyone who’s making a go of it as a full-time musician?”

“Grandpa Campion did”.

“Ah yes, but he was a professional organist, and he didn’t really support himself by performing, did he? He was an organ teacher and a busy one, but it didn’t exactly give him a very comfortable lifestyle. If Mum hadn’t married the old man, we’d have been raised in abject poverty, bro!”

I shrugged; “I’ve never heard Mum complain”.

“No, she wouldn’t, would she?” He frowned again. “I just wish Eric would set his mind on getting a good, well-rounded education. I want him to get a good degree that will give him a lot of options. I’m not naive enough to think I can talk him out of trying to make a go of this music business, but I want him to have something else he can fall back on if it doesn’t work out for him”.

“What else is he interested in?” I asked.

Rick shook his head; “Not much, actually. He spends all his time listening to those old blues singers, and when he reads at all it’s them he’s reading about – not like Sarah, who reads absolutely everything she can lay her hands on. I’m trying to persuade him to aim at a business degree: it’s such a flexible thing to have and you can apply it in so many different fields. Of course I understand that it’s not his favourite thing right now, but the day might come when he changes his mind and realizes just how useful it can be. I just hope that day doesn’t come too late”. He shrugged and said, “Oh well – sorry to burden you with my worries. What about you, Emma – what do you want to do? I suppose you want to be a professional musician too, do you?”

She laughed; “No, I’m with Dad – I’d rather do it for fun. I actually want to be a nurse”.

“Oh right – your dad did tell me about that, now that you mention it. Following in your mum’s footsteps, then?”

“Yeah. It’s not like she ever tried to push me, but somehow from hearing her talk about it I realized it was what I wanted to do”.

“Well, somewhere in the world someone’s always going to need a nurse. I don’t expect you’ll ever get rich but you’ll probably always be able to find work”.

“I’m not too worried about getting rich; I don’t spend much, so I don’t need much”.

Rick grinned at me again; “Chip off the old block”, he said.

******

After church the next day Emma and I were just getting our lunch ready when Becca called. “I was right”, she said; “Dad’s got a chest infection”.

“Is he going into hospital?”

“He’s on his way to the John Radcliffe as we speak”.

“Should we go in to see him?”

“Maybe not today; I expect they’ll be getting him hooked up to antibiotics, and they’re going to try to get him to rest as much as possible. Tomorrow night might be a better idea”.

“Are you sure? It seems weird not to go in today some time”.

“Trust me on this, Tommy; his doctors are going to be trying to keep people away from him so he can rest. Also, he might not want you to see him when he’s feeling really rough”.

“Right – I didn’t think about that”.

“He can be hard to take when he’s sick”.

I laughed softly; “He can be hard to take when he’s healthy, too!”

“True! Feel free to ring Mum later on tonight if you want; I’m going to pick her up after supper and drive her home”.

“Okay, I’ll do that. Thanks, Becs”.

 ******

The following evening we went over to the John Radcliffe Hospital; the ‘J.R.’ was only a fifteen-minute walk from our house in Marston. My father was in a room in the crowded intensive care unit; he was lying on a hospital bed with his head and shoulders slightly raised, and I could see at least two IV tubes attached to his arms. He looked pale and thin, and the dark circles under his eyes were larger again. My mother was sitting beside him; they both looked up as we entered the room, and my mother said, “Well, here’s Tom and Emma!”

My father frowned and shook his head; “There was no need for you to come out”, he said gruffly. “Just a little setback, that’s all; I’ll be up again in a few days”.

“It was no trouble”, I replied.

“But you don’t want to be hanging around in the hospital; you hear so much about people picking up viruses and getting sick from being in here”.

“I’ve done my share of hospital visiting, Dad”, I said softly.

“Well, then you know…”

Emma leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. “How are you feeling, Grandpa?”

“A bit rough, thanks, but at least I’m not coughing as much as I was yesterday”.

“They’ve got you on antibiotics, I guess?”

“I think so; I suppose you know all about that sort of thing, do you?”

She laughed softly and shook her head; “I’m a long way from being a nurse; I just remember when Mom went through it”.

He looked up at her in silence for a moment, and then shrugged and said, “Well, since you’re here, you may as well sit down. There’s room for you at the foot of the bed there; Tom, there’s an extra chair in the corner if you want”.

We sat down as we were told, and my mother smiled at Emma and said “How are your other grandparents? Have you been talking to them?”

“We talked to them for a few minutes this morning, actually”.

“I expect they miss you a lot”.

She nodded; “They’re used to having us all around”.

“Are you still thinking of applying to Oxford Brookes University?”

“I think I probably will. I don’t know how long I’m going to be in England, but it would make sense to make a start. I actually did some research before we moved here, and there is one little snag”.

“What’s that?” my father asked.

“I seem to have fallen through a little crack. Apparently if you’re a U.K. resident you can apply for nursing training and the National Health Service will pay your fees. But if you’re not a U.K. resident then not only will they not pay your fees but they don’t want you to apply for training at all until you’ve lived here for at least three years, for purposes other than education”.

“That’s ridiculous! Typical Labour government policy!”

My mother frowned; “You mentioned ‘falling through a crack’?”

“I guess my situation’s unusual – on the one hand I’m not a U.K. resident, but on the other hand I didn’t move here specifically to go to university. And I am a U.K. citizen through Dad. I think the university’s busy trying to figure out which category I fit into. But whichever one they put me in, I don’t think the NHS will pay my fees”.

“How much money are we talking about?” my father asked me.

I could see where this conversation was going, and I didn’t like it. “Several thousand pounds, but don’t worry about it, Dad; we’ll be fine”.

For a moment I thought he was going to argue with me, but then I realized that he was just too weary to object. He glanced at Emma; “I don’t like to see your education suffer because you moved here”.

“Don’t worry about me, Grandpa; it looks like in a week or two I’ll be starting to volunteer at a nursing home not far from here. I just have to wait while they do all the police checks; that’s going to take a little longer than usual, because my records are all on the other side of the Atlantic”.

“I suppose they would be, wouldn’t they?”

On the crowded table beside the bed there was a paperback book; Emma glanced at it and said, “The Constant Gardener; I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that one”.

“Are you familiar with John Le Carré?”

“He writes spy novels, doesn’t he?”

“He does; I rather like them”.

“I think I read one of his a couple of years ago; did he write The Russia House?”

“He did; what did you think of it?”

“I enjoyed it, but I thought it was kind of bleak”.

My father nodded; “He’s got a rather dark view of the world; I expect it comes from having worked for MI5”. He glanced at me; “What about you? Are you familiar with him?”

“I’ve read a few of his books; I think he’s very good, but I don’t especially care for that style myself”.

“No, I suppose not”. He looked across at my mother; “Perhaps you people would like to go down and find a cup of tea or something?”

“We came to visit with you, Dad”, I said.

“I know, but I’m actually feeling rather tired”.

“What do you think, Mum?” I asked.

She and my father exchanged glances, and then she shrugged and said, “Perhaps it would be a good idea; I think your father wants to sleep a bit now”.

******

“Sorry about that”, my mother said to us as we took our seats together on stools around a high table in the little hospital coffee shop. “He’s really not good at having people around him when he’s sick”.

“Becca warned me about that”, I replied, “but I must admit it felt pretty weird”.

“For a minute there I thought it was going to be okay”, said Emma.

“He likes you, my dear”, my mother replied with a smile. “I know it might not always be easy to tell…”

Emma shook her head. “I understand; people don’t always say what they really feel”.

My mother was quiet for a moment, and then she reached out and put her hand on Emma’s. “You’re very wise, Emma Dawn”, she said softly.

Emma smiled awkwardly. “Thanks; I learned a lot about that kind of thing from my mom”.

My mother nodded; “Of course you did”, she replied.

******

Link to Chapter 10

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 8

Link back to Chapter 7

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Smart ass!”

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

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

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

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

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

“He did, and I always enjoyed it”.

******

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

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

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

“Not bad”.

“What have you actually done so far?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No thanks –  just tea, please”.

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

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

“Perishing”.

“What’s this all about, Wendy?”

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

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

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

“In hospital? Why?”

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

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

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

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

“Did you know about his drug use?”

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

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

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

“What did he say?”

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

“So what did you do?”

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

“Let me make you something to eat”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It does seem strange sometimes”.

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

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

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

“How old were you?”

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

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

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

“So you fell in love with him”.

“Totally”.

“But you didn’t become friends?”

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

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

“Wendy, are you sure you’re okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was that when you went to Canada?”

“Yes”.

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

“Yes – how about you?”

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

“Is that where you’re from?”

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

“You’re a long way from home”.

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

“I guess not”.

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

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

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

“Yes”.

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

“No, probably not”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s Baptist, you say?”

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

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

“Ten-thirty”.

“Maybe we’ll come this Sunday”.

“We’ll look out for you, then”.

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

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

“He seems to be struggling a bit”.

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

“He’s the design and technology teacher?”

“Yes”.

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

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

“I don’t know if I’ve met Simon yet”.

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

“Sounds like someone I should get to know”.

“That might be a good idea”.

******

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

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

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

“Be nice now!”

“Did you have a good day?”

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

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

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

“Tempting, but I don’t think so”.

“Too bad. So what was your day like?”

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

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

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

“What kind of reception did you get?”

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

“And you said…?”

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

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

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

“This is fairly close, you say?”

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

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

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

“Rick brought us some wine?”

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

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

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

“Wonder what that’s about?”

“He didn’t say”.

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

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

“I think I might just have a glass”.

******

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

“Hi, it’s Tom”.

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

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

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

“I’m sure we would”.

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

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

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

“Right; we’ll be there”.

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

******

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

“Hi, it’s me”.

“Hi you; what’s up?”

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

“Wendy Howard?”

“Yes”.

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

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

“Oh?”

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

“What’s she doing in Oxford?”

“Teaching English at Merton”.

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

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

“I didn’t even know she had a son”.

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

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

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

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

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

“No?”

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

“Does the file have contact information for Wendy?”

“Of course”.

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

“I’m thinking about that”.

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

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

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

“Definitely”.

“I’ll hold you to that”.

I laughed; “Okay. Goodnight Owen”.

“Goodnight Tom; don’t work too hard”.

“I’ll do my best”.

******

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

“Wendy?”

“Yes”.

“This is Tom Masefield”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you”.

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

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

“Is it going well?”

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

“Familiar ground for you”.

“Yes”.

“Do you still sing?”

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

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

“You were always such a good musician”.

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

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

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

“Have you been playing music together yet?”

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

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

“Yes, it has”.

“Do you still enjoy walking?”

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

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

“That’s a good distance”.

“It takes me about forty minutes”.

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

“Whereabouts?”

“We’re on Croft Road”.

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

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

“You too; can I give you my number?”

“Of course; just let me get a pen”.

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

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

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

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

“Good night, Wendy”.

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

******

Link to Chapter Nine

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 7

Link back to Chapter 6

******

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

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

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

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

“Yard!” she replied with a grin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

“How are you feeling, Dad?” I asked.

“Not bad”.

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

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

“Certainly, my dear; lead the way!”

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

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

“Well – I’m sorry I missed it!”

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

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

“Well, my guitar’s upstairs”.

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll be okay”.

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

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

“Thanks”, she replied shyly.

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

Emma grinned at me; “Something more cheerful?”

“What did you have in mind?”

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

“Works for me”.

******

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

“It’ll be fine for us, Dad”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, Grandma”.

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

“Thank you; good night to you too”.

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll be fine”.

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

“How do you mean?”

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

“A little confusing, isn’t it?”

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

“How do you feel?”

“Helpless, angry, sad…”

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

“Oh yeah; I’m a little achy though”.

“We worked hard today”.

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

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

“That’s where we’re going, is it?”

“Is that okay?”

“That’s fine, Dad”.

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

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

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

“I know”.

“Of course you do; I’m sorry”.

“No – no need to apologize”.

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

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

“Are you all right?”

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

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

“Goodnight, sweetheart”.

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

******

Link to Chapter 8