‘A Time to Mend’ is now available on Kindle

timchesterton_A5My new novel, ‘A Time to Mend’, is now available for purchase in the Kindle store.

I call it ‘my new novel’, but I first typed the (now totally unrecognizable) ancestor of this story on a manual typewriter in my study in Aklavik over thirty years ago! Although it follows ‘Meadowvale’ chronologically, it was conceived before ‘Meadowvale’; in fact, I first wrote ‘Meadowvale’ because I was interested in the back story to ‘A Time to Mend’.

The basic story will not be strange to long-time readers of this blog, who will have read earlier versions of it. However, it has been substantially revised from the last version that was published here.

If you have a Kindle (or the Kindle app for your computer or iPad) I’d love it if you’d buy it, and I’d love it even more if you’d write an Amazon review for it afterwards! I will soon be announcing a paperback edition (from Amazon), and also hopefully Kobo and iBooks versions.

Here’s the blurb:

‘Two years after the loss of his beloved wife Kelly, Tom Masefield comes face to face with a new challenge: his father—the one he originally left England to get away from—is dying. For twenty-one years they have lived on different continents and have kept their personal contact to a bare minimum. But now Tom’s conscience tells him he needs to make one more attempt at reconciliation before his father dies.

‘So Tom and his daughter Emma decide to move back to England. Over the next two years, they will find out whether it is possible to mend relationships that have been broken for half a lifetime. And along the way, Tom will make a discovery that will transform his life in ways he never imagined.’

Links:

Canada

USA

UK

Australia

New Zealand

If you aren’t listed above, simply do a search on your local Amazon website.

 

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‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 15

Link back to Chapter 14

******

I woke up during the night to the howl of the wind and the sound of rain beating against my window. I got up to go to the bathroom, and when I returned I turned out the light in my room and lifted the curtain to look outside. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I could see that it was blowing hard; the trees were shaking and the rain was slanting down at about a forty-five degree angle. It was cold in my room, and when I got back into bed I pulled the comforter up around my neck, thinking as I often did of the many winter nights over the years when Kelly had come back to our bed and wrapped herself around me to get warm again. She had felt the cold far more than I did; it was a constant running joke between us that she had married a hot water bottle and I had married an ice pack.

I woke up again at around seven and got up shortly afterwards to go for a walk. The rain had stopped but the streets and pavements of the village were slick with ice and wet snow. I had to walk slowly to save myself from falling, and the few cars that passed me at that early hour of the morning were crawling along at a sluggish pace.

It was about nine o’clock by the time we sat down at the table in the kitchen to eat breakfast together. In answer to my query, my father told me that he had slept reasonably well and was feeling good, although I noticed that he ate his bacon and eggs very slowly. “How was the weather outside this morning?” he asked me.

“Cold and icy; the roads are pretty slick”.

“Is there much snow?”

“A little, but it’s mainly ice. I was awake at about two and I heard the rain coming down in sheets; it must have turned to sleet after that”.

“I hope everyone got home alright yesterday”.

“We would have heard by now if they hadn’t”, said Becca.

“Yes, I suppose so”. He glanced back at me; “Are you expecting some phone calls from Canada today?”

“I think Steve and Krista might call us a bit later on, but the person I’m actually expecting to hear from fairly soon is Owen”.

“Oh?”

“He’d said they were coming out to see his dad and mum today, but with this weather I’m hoping they might change their minds and stay home”. I glanced at Becca; “Are you going home today?”

“I’m supposed to take over from Owen at noon”.

“Being on call, you mean?” Emma asked.

“Yes”.

“You drive carefully now”, my mother said quietly.

“Don’t worry, Mum; I’ll be fine”.

******

Owen called me on my mobile phone just as we were finishing breakfast; I apologized, excused myself from the table, went out to the hallway and said “I hope you’re calling to tell me you’re staying home today”.

“Yes. The police aren’t advising travel, at least until mid-afternoon”.

“That’s good; you get a bit more time to enjoy your family”.

“Yes, and I might as well stay on call too. Tell Becca I can cover for her for the next twenty-four hour period”.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure”.

“Okay. How was Christmas at your place?”

“Messy; very messy. How about you?”

“It was good; we had a pleasant family gathering and my brother even left his Blackberry at home”.

“Bit of an addict?”

“I’m afraid so. My dad’s brothers and their wives were here; I got to have a nice visit with my cousin Ann and her family”.

“You haven’t seen her for a while”.

“Not since we were here in ’97, even though she just lives in Oxford. We agreed that we’re going to try to get together again soon. She’s always kept in touch with me over the years; she’s the only one of my cousins that’s done that”.

“Right”.

“You’re going to miss seeing your family today”.

“Well, we see each other a lot so I’m not really worried. I think Fiona and Jeff are staying at Mum and Dad’s for the weekend; hopefully the weather will clear up tomorrow so we can get out”. I heard someone calling him in the background and he said, “Well, I’d better go; apparently there’s some sort of family snowballing thing going on outside!”

“You’ve got snow on the ground in town, then?”

“Yes; haven’t you?”

“Just a skiff”.

“We’ve got enough for snowballs here; the kids are pretty excited”.

“Give them my love, Owen; we’ll see you soon”.

“Bye for now, Tom”.

******

We spent our morning indoors; my father and Emma sat talking by the fireplace in the living room while Becca and I helped our mother finish the cleanup from the day before. At about eleven o’clock Becca made coffee, and we were just taking the tray into the living room when the phone rang in the hallway. My mother started to get up, but Emma, who was standing in the doorway, said “You stay where you are, Grandma – I’ll get it”.

“Thank you, my dear”.

Emma disappeared back into the hallway; Becca put the tray down on the coffee table and began to pour, and she was just handing the mugs around when I heard my daughter’s call: “Dad, could you come please?”

I was on my feet instantly, recognizing the note of urgency in her voice. Out in the hallway she was standing with the phone in her hand, her face pale.“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“It’s Auntie Alyson and she’s really upset – something about an accident involving Uncle Rick and Sarah”.

I took the phone from her hand, put it to my ear and said “Alyson, it’s Tom”.

“Oh Tom, thank God!” she sobbed; “I think it’s really bad! Rick was driving Sarah up to Woodstock to visit Brittany and he spun on the ice and got hit by a lorry and another car. They’ve been taken to the J.R. and the police say Sarah’s been badly injured!”

“Where are you calling from?” I asked as calmly as I could.

“A police car on the way to the J.R.”.

Becca appeared from the living room with a little frown on her face; I gave her a warning glance and then spoke into the phone again; “Can you tell me what you know?”

“A policeman came to our door a few minutes ago”, Alyson replied, struggling to hold back the tears. “He said…he said there’d been an accident on the Woodstock Road, a collision, and Rick and…and Sarah were both injured, and so was one of the other drivers. He said it sounded as if Sarah…as if Sarah had been very badly injured”.

“Where are Colin and Anna?”

“They’re at the house – I didn’t think I could look after them at the hospital as well as dealing with whatever happened there, so I…”

“Right”. I looked at Becca; “Rick and Sarah were in a car accident”, I whispered. “They’re both injured; the ambulance is taking them to the J.R. and Alyson’s on her way there right now in a police car”.

“They’ll go to the Trauma Unit”, she replied softly; “That’s where the ambulance will be going”.

I repeated this to Alyson, and then said, “Don’t worry; we’ll make sure Colin and Anna are okay and we’ll come and join you as quickly as we can”.

“Thank you, Tom: I – I’m going to need some help at the hospital”.

“We’re on our way; you hang in there”.

“Right”.

As I put the phone down my mother emerged from the living room; “Is everything all right?” she asked uneasily.

“I’m afraid not” I replied, and as my father appeared in the doorway behind her I repeated what Alyson had said to me. When I was finished we were all quiet for a moment, and then Becca said, “So we need to look after two things; someone needs to go to Eric and Anna to make sure they’re all right, and someone needs to go to the hospital right away to help Alyson”.

I glanced at Emma; “We’ll go to Eric and Anna”.

“Eric will want to go to the hospital”, said Emma.

“Then we should bring them both. Will you call Eric?”

She nodded, digging in her jeans pocket for her mobile as she turned away toward the back of the hall and went through the open door into the piano room. Becca looked at my parents and said, “I’d better go to the J.R.”.

“We’ll come with you”, my father replied.

Becca shook her head; “I don’t think that’s a good idea Dad”.

“Why not?”

“If the injuries are serious they’ll take them through for surgery right away, and it will probably take a long time. We’re probably going to be sitting in waiting rooms until late tonight”.

“We’d like to be close, though”, my mother said.

“I know, Mum, and I understand, but believe me – it’s very unlikely that we’re going to get anywhere near them tonight; we’ll be with Alyson and the kids, not Rick and Sarah. And I think if we’re there for twelve or fourteen hours Dad’s going to be worn out”.

My father shook his head, and I saw the determination on his face. “This is my son and my granddaughter we’re talking about. I want to be there”.

My sister looked at him for a moment, and then nodded reluctantly; “Alright then. Let’s all remember that the roads are treacherous today so we can’t go fast. Tommy, I’ll go straight to the Trauma Unit with Mum and Dad; it’s on the north side of the J.R. and it’s got its own parking lot. I’ll probably get there before you, so when you arrive, wait for me in the reception area; I’ll come to you as soon as I can”.

“Where are you going to go?”

“As soon as I get there I’m going to try and find Alyson, and then I’m going to try to pull all the strings I can to find out what’s going on. But I’m only a GP, not one of the trauma surgeons, so I might not get very far”.

“Understood”.

Emma slipped back into the hallway, putting her mobile back in her pocket. “Eric knows we’re coming”, she said to me; “He told me Anna’s really upset. He’s trying to reach his other grandparents in Edinburgh; his mom asked him to call them”.

“We’d better get going”, I replied.

******

Emma and I arrived at Rick’s house in Cumnor Hill just after noon. Eric and Anna were ready for us; by the time my car had come to a complete stop in the driveway they were already emerging from the front door, wrapped up warmly in winter coats and scarves. They climbed into the back of my car and Eric said, “Thanks for coming, Uncle Tom”.

“Have you heard anything else from your Mum?” I asked over my shoulder as I reversed the car out of the driveway.

“No”.

“Were you able to get through to your Mackenzie grandparents?”

“Yes; they’re going to start out this afternoon some time”.

As we drove into Oxford I glanced at my rear view mirror and saw that Eric had his arm around his little sister; after a moment Emma reached back and took her hand as well. I kept my eyes on the road ahead; traffic was beginning to get busy despite the slippery conditions, and I guessed that the lure of Boxing Day sales was prompting people to brave the slick highways.

“I don’t know where we’re supposed to go when we get to the hospital”, Eric said.

“Becca told me to go to the Trauma Unit; that’s where they treat people who’ve had injuries in car accidents and things like that”.

“The policeman didn’t say anything about how bad their injuries are; he just said Sarah’s were more serious than Dad’s”.

I glanced at the two of them in my rear view mirror again; Eric had both his arms around Anna now. Emma squeezed her hand; “It’ll be okay”, she said softly. “They’re going to the best possible place; they’ve got some of the best doctors in the world there and they’ll look after them well”.

Anna didn’t reply, and after a moment Eric said “It was supposed to be Mum driving Sarah today”.

“What was happening?” I asked; “Was Sarah going to a party or something?”

“Not a party – just two or three friends getting together at Brittany Coleman’s in Woodstock”.

“She’s Sarah’s best friend”, Emma explained to me; “They’ve known each other since they were little kids”.

“Mum was going to drive her”, Eric continued, “But when she woke up this morning she had a bad headache – she gets them sometimes – and so Dad said he’d do it. He was really busy today; when I got up he was already working in his study”.

 “He told me yesterday he had a big trial to get ready for”.

“Yes, I heard him tell Mum last night he was going to be working on it all day today”.

******

It took me a few minutes to find the car park for the Trauma Unit, and a few minutes more to find a parking spot; apparently the JR was a busy place on this Boxing Day. Once inside the main doors I looked around helplessly; people were walking here and there or sitting on chairs scattered about the reception area, and lines of people were waiting at the desks. Eric was still holding Anna’s hand; he looked at me and said “How are we going to find them?”

“Becca told us to wait here”.

“There’s Grandma and Grandpa”, said Emma, looking over to the far side of the room. I followed her eyes and saw my parents sitting at one end of a row of vinyl chairs with a plant pot beside them; my mother had just seen us, and as we made our way over to them she got to her feet and held out her arms to Anna. “It’s alright, darling” she said, drawing her close and holding her tight; “Auntie Becca’s gone to find them. She’ll be back in a few minutes to tell us what’s happening”.

“Are you okay, Dad?” I asked my father.

“I’m fine; Becca told us not to be worried if she was gone for some time”.

“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking”.

It was actually about twenty minutes later that my sister emerged from one of the elevators. She saw us immediately, came over and gave Anna a hug, and then put her hand on Eric’s shoulder. “You two come with me”, she said; “Your mum’s on one of the units and I’m going to take you to her”. She glanced up at the rest of us and said, “Sorry, they’ll only allow immediate family; I’ll come back as soon as I can and let you know what’s happening”.

“What is happening right now, Becs?” I asked.

“They’re both being prepped for surgery. I don’t know Rick’s surgeon but I heard someone say that Sarah’s surgeon is John Fellows; he’s an old friend of Owen’s from medical school days. He and I know each other a bit”.

“Right; I guess we’ll wait here then”.

“It could be a while, Tommy”.

“I understand”.

Becca led Eric and Anna across to the elevator, and Emma and I sat down with my parents. “Shall I try to find a coffee machine?” she asked.

“That’s all right; I think I’ve had enough”.

******

And so we waited there for the next three or four hours, flipping absent-mindedly through magazines, talking quietly to each other, and getting up occasionally to stretch our legs. New people were coming in all the time; some were able to move on quickly but most, like us, sat down to wait, not knowing how long they would be waiting for. I tried to stop myself from continually checking my watch; the numbers seemed to be changing with excruciating slowness. At one point my father shook his head impatiently; “What the devil is taking so long!” he exclaimed.

“They said the injuries were serious, Dad”, I replied quietly.

“But why can’t Becca come and tell us something?”

“It’s possible that she’s the calming voice in there right now, with Alyson and the kids”.

He looked at me for a moment, and then he nodded and said, “You’re right, of course. I’m sorry – I just hate waiting, that’s all. And I hate this place”.

“I know”.

At about four o’clock in the afternoon Emma got up and went outside for a few minutes; she was finding the atmosphere stuffy, she said, and she needed a breath of fresh air. She had just returned and taken her seat again when I looked up and saw Becca coming across the room toward us. I immediately stood up; “Any news?” I asked.

“Sit down and I’ll fill you in”.

We took our seats, and Becca covered my mother’s hand with her own. “Rick’s got a broken arm and a broken leg, along with three broken ribs. He seems to have a mild concussion but the team doesn’t seem overly worried about that. They’re still working on him and he’s under general anaesthetic right now, but he was conscious when they brought him in”.

“What about Sarah?” Emma asked.

Becca shook her head; “Things are a lot more serious with her. Both her femurs are broken and one of them is an open compound fracture; the bone’s broken in three places. She’s also got several broken ribs, a broken wrist and a broken collarbone. Also both her lungs are collapsed, and she’s in a coma”.

“A coma?”

“Yes. That’s probably the result of a severe blow to the head”.

Emma stared at Becca, her face pale. “Is she going to be okay?”

“They’re working on her right now to stabilize her. I think they’ll probably try to address the situation with the lungs and the compound fracture first, but I wasn’t in the operating room so I don’t know for certain”.

“So she’ll come out of the coma then?”

“We can’t know that, but the best thing for them to do is to assume she will, and to start to address her other injuries”.

My father took my mother’s other hand. “Becca, is her life in danger?” he asked softly.

“She’s in critical condition right now, Dad. I’ll feel a lot better if and when she comes out of the coma but it’s impossible to say when that might happen”.

“What do we know about the accident?”

“It happened on the A44 just south of Begbroke. As far as we can tell Rick lost control of his car on black ice and was struck by a lorry and also by a smaller car. He hit the meridian and flipped; his car was upright when it came to rest but the roof was badly damaged, so it must  have gone all the way over, 360 degrees. I’m assuming that’s when Sarah sustained the blow to her head. Several other vehicles were involved in the accident and one of the other drivers was killed. The police aren’t releasing any names yet, for obvious reasons”.

“How are Alyson and the kids doing?” asked Emma.

“Alyson and Anna are really upset. Eric is too, but he’s doing his best to be there for his mum and his sister. Speaking of which – I should probably go back and give him a hand”.

I looked at Emma; she smiled at me as bravely as she could but I could see in her eyes that she was shaken by the news. I reached over and took her hand; “Are you going to be okay?”

She nodded; “Can we go and see them?” she asked Becca.

“Not yet – as I said, they’re both still in surgery”.

“Give Alyson and the kids hugs for me”.

“I will”. She glanced at my father; “Are you alright, Dad?”

“Don’t worry about me; we’ve got far more important things to think about!”

“Are you getting tired, though?”

“A bit, but I’ll be alright for a little while yet”.

“Will you two stay in my spare room tonight?”

My parents glanced at each other, and my mother said, “Let’s see how the evening goes, shall we? We can always take a taxi home if we need to”.

“Why don’t you find the cafeteria and have a bite to eat? I’ll ring Tommy’s mobile if anything important happens”.

“That sounds like a good idea”, I replied; “How long do you think, Becs?”

“I’ve really got no idea; it could be several hours yet”.

******

We stayed at the hospital until after ten o’clock. Rick was out of surgery by then, and Alyson and the children went in to see him briefly, but his nurse said he needed rest more than anything else, and after a few minutes she asked them to leave so that he could get some sleep. Sarah was in intensive care with a nurse monitoring her around the clock; Alyson was allowed in to her room briefly, but the rest of us were limited to looking at her through the window.

The next day was a Saturday. Shortly after one in the afternoon I stuck my head around the door of my brother’s room in the Trauma Unit. His right leg had a sort of pulley and weight contraption attached to it; his right arm was in a cast, and his chest was heavily bandaged. He was staring vacantly into space, and although he turned and looked at me when I entered the room, he seemed at first to be having difficulty focusing on my face.

“Does it feel as bad as it looks?” I asked.

He shrugged; “Not too bad at the moment, but then they’ve got me on a fairly heavy dose of pain killers. They’re making me a bit drowsy though, so you’ll have to forgive me if I nod off”.

“Do you mind if I come in?”

“Be my guest. Are you here by yourself?”

“Emma came with me but she’s gone down to Sarah’s room. Is there anyone else around yet?”

“Alyson was here for a while but she went to see how Sarah was doing. Mum and Dad are with her. Becca’s doing a Saturday morning clinic, I hear”.

I nodded. “I talked to her earlier on; she’ll be here soon”.

We lapsed into silence for a moment; he reached for a glass from the bedside table, sipped cold water through a straw, and then put it down again.

“Do you remember anything?” I asked gently.

“About the accident, you mean?”

“Yeah”.

He looked away. “I lost control of the car”, he said quietly. “I must have hit a patch of black ice; that’s what the police think. After that it’s all a bit hazy. Something big struck us on the passenger side; the police say it was a lorry. I’ve got a vague memory of colliding with another vehicle on the rebound, and then we hit the barrier – it’s a dual carriageway up there – and I must have been knocked out. When I came to, the car was upright but my head was touching the roof. Sarah was unconscious beside me, and she was covered in blood”. He glanced at me, and I saw the horror in his eyes. “God, Tom, I thought she was dead; she looked awful”.

“Have you heard anything about her this morning?”

“Apparently they put a chest tube in last night to drain the air from around the collapsed lungs”.

“The collapse would have been caused by punctures from the broken ribs?”

“Yes; she’s got five of them. I’ve got no idea why her injuries were so much worse than mine”. He shook his head; “I’d have been glad for it to be the other way around”.

“She’s still in a coma?”

“Yes”. He looked down; “They don’t seem to  know how long that’ll go on for”.

“No”

He was quiet for a moment, looking down. I waited, not wanting to inadvertently say anything that might interfere with the raw honesty of our conversation.

“One of the other drivers was killed”, he said, his eyes still down.

“That’s what I heard”.

“Apparently she was a single mum”.

“I didn’t know that”.

“She had a two-year old boy at home”. He shook his head slowly; “Imagine being two years old and losing your mum”.

“Yes”.

“Is Emma all right?”.

“She was a little shaken last night but I think she was doing okay this morning. What about your other two?”

“Alyson left them at home with her parents today; they got in from Edinburgh around eleven last night”. He glanced at me; “I heard you were the one who brought Eric and Anna in yesterday”.

“Yeah”

“Thanks for that”.

“Not at all; it was the least we could do. Emma and your kids have been getting pretty close”.

“Emma’s special. She’s old for her age, isn’t she? I sometimes have to remind myself she’s only eighteen. Still, I suppose she’s had to do a lot of growing up in the last few years”.

“Yes”.

He looked at me for a moment without speaking, and then he said, “You never know what life’s going to send your way, do you?”

“No, you don’t”.

He picked up the water glass for a moment, took another sip and stared away into space. “I wish I could see Sarah”, he whispered, “but I doubt if I’ll be able to get out of this room for a while”.

“Are they saying anything about how long you’ll be here?”

He gestured toward his broken leg. “They say it could take three months to heal properly. I’m not sure how soon I’ll be able to go home, but they’ve told me I’ll need to be very patient with myself. I’ll be off work for a while, I think – or at least, I won’t be going in to the office”.

“Someone else is going to have to cover that trial for you”.

“Yes; funny how completely unimportant that seems now”.

“I think I can understand”.

He nodded slowly; “Yes – I think you probably can”.

“How was Alyson this morning? She seemed pretty shaken yesterday”.

“Still the same, I think. She can be a bit fragile”.

“Understandable”.

“There’s not really much she cares about more than the children. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, and with me working so much…”

“It’s the nature of the job, so I understand”.

He gave me a wry grin; “Dad and I have given you that lecture a few times, haven’t we?”

“You have”.

“I wonder how Dad feels about it right now”, he said softly, looking away toward the window.

“Have you asked him?”

“Me? Good heavens, no! The old man and I don’t talk on that level”. He frowned thoughtfully at me; “Have you?”

“Not yet”.

“You plan to, though?”

“If I can”.

As he opened his mouth to reply there was a gentle knock on the door. We both turned to look as my mother and Becca appeared in the doorway.

“Did you just get here?” I asked Becca.

“I’ve been here for a few minutes. Mum called and asked if I could come over a little earlier, so I gave away some appointments and came right away”.

“Is there a problem?” asked Rick.

My mother shook her head; “Not a problem – I just wanted her to be involved in a conversation we were having with Sarah’s doctor. He wants to do a procedure on her today”.

“What sort of procedure?”

“They want to insert a titanium rod into her left leg”.

Rick frowned; “That sounds rather drastic”.

“It’s standard procedure in situations like this”, Becca replied; “They might do the same thing for you in a few days. Sarah’s bone’s broken in three places and they need to fix it in position so it can knit together properly. The titanium rod is called an intramedullary nail; they’ll insert it into the marrow canal of the femur either at the hip or the knee and it’ll be screwed to the bone at both ends. It’ll keep it in proper position so it can heal”.

“How long will it be in place?”

“It’ll be permanent”.

“Permanent”. He looked away, shaking his head slowly. “This is going to affect her for the rest of her life, isn’t it?” he said quietly.

“She’ll be all right, Rick”, Becca replied softly; “Lots of people are walking around with these rods in their legs”.

“They’re just doing it on the one leg?”

“Yes; the other one isn’t so badly injured; it’s just a transverse fracture. They’re going to put it in traction and wait for a few days before they do anything”. She sat down on the other side of the bed from me. “This is just the first of several surgeries Sarah’s going to have, Rick”, she said. “It’s going to take a long time for her to come back from this. But she’s alive and she’s in good hands. I know you’re going to worry; that’s only natural. But the people here know what they’re doing; you can trust them”.

“Is she still in the coma?”

“Yes. There are no indictions at the moment as to when she’ll come out of it”.

“Or if she’ll come out of it”.

“No”.

He was quiet for a moment, his eyebrows creased into a frown, and then he looked at Becca again; “So do they need my consent for this procedure?”

“They asked Alyson, but she said we should ask you too”.

“You think it’s a good idea?”

“As I said, it’s absolutely standard procedure”.

He nodded; “Right then – let’s do it”.

Becca got to her feet; “I’ll go and tell them”, she said.

******

Link to Chapter 16

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 14

Link back to Chapter 13

Emma and I went out to Northwood on the evening of the 22nd, and Becca came out to join us as soon as the clinic closed on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. The three of us went to the village church that night at seven; the pews were almost full, and Claire Lucas preached a thoughtful sermon which seemed to hold even my sister’s attention. Becca had usually accompanied us to our church on her visits to Meadowvale, but I knew that she rarely attended when she was home in England.

After the service was over we walked back to my parents’ house through the cold night air. Becca grinned at us; “That was a bit different from your usual service at Meadowvale Mennonite Church”.

“A little”, I replied, “but we like it alright. The people here are getting to know us, and we get to see George and Eleanor”.

“And Claire’s started to recognize us, too”, Emma added; “I had a nice conversation with her last time we were here”.

“You two are so easy to get along with! Surely you must miss your own church just a little bit on Christmas Eve?”

“Oh yeah”, Emma replied softly; “I miss a lot of things about home”.

“Who’s going to be at Will and Sally’s for dinner tomorrow?”

“Uncle Joe and Auntie Krista and their families for sure, and I think David and Anna will probably be there too”.

“How many’s that?”

“Twelve, I think”.

Becca grinned at me; “I think that for once we might have a bigger group here!”

“Uncle Arthur and Uncle Bill are coming, aren’t they?”

“Yes – and their wives, and Ann and Mark and their family, and Auntie Brenda, and all of us: that makes nineteen”.

“Do you know why Auntie Sarah’s not coming?”

“I think Uncle Graham’s pretty frail; they don’t stray too far away from home these days”.

“Auntie Sarah’s Grandpa’s sister, right?” asked Emma.

“Yes”, I replied. “Grandpa’s the oldest, and the others are Arthur, Sarah, and Bill”.

“Which family does Ann come from?”

“She’s the oldest daughter of Uncle Bill and Auntie Joan. Her husband is Mark Fogerty, and Caitlin and Molly are their kids; they’re seven and four”.

“They’re the ones that live in Oxford?”

“Yes. Ann’s actually the only one of my cousins who’s kept in touch with me through the years”.

“Have I ever met her?”

“Last time we were here she and Mark and Caitlin drove over from Cambridge to see us; Caitlin would have been a baby at the time. You probably wouldn’t remember it, though”.

“Actually I think I do; she was kind of tall, with long blond hair. Her husband was a little shorter than her, and his hair was really black and curly”.

“Yes, that’s them”.

Becca took my arm. “It’s a long time since anyone from Dad’s family came for dinner on Christmas Day”.

“Well, there’s a bit more of a sense of urgency this year, isn’t there?”

“I would think so”.

******

I was up early as usual on Christmas morning, and I went for my walk while it was still dark; there was a sharp frost in the air, and I knew that when the daylight came the bare fields would look spectacular with their thin white covering, different and somehow colder than the snow I was used to from my prairie home. Praying while walking had been a habit for me for many years, but on this, my third Christmas without Kelly, I found that there wasn’t a great deal that I wanted to say. It seemed to be enough just to walk quietly, breathing a few prayers of thanksgiving for Christmases past, and asking God to watch over the many loved ones who were far away from us this year.

When I got back to the house my mother was already up and working in the kitchen in her bathrobe and slippers, stuffing the Christmas turkey. We chatted for a few minutes while I made tea; I promised to come down and give her a hand, but she shook her head and said, “Becca’s just getting up, and we’ve got a good system between us. You take Emma her tea and then the two of you just enjoy yourselves for a while; we’ll be alright”.

“Are you sure?”

“Oh yes”.

“Okay then; thanks, Mum”.

I poured two mugs of tea, kissed her on the cheek and went up to Emma’s room. She was already awake, with the debris from her stocking spread over her bed; she greeted me with a smile and a hug and held up the paperback I had wrapped for her a couple of days before. “Adam Bede”, she said; “I’d been thinking about getting this one for myself”.

“Aren’t you glad you didn’t?”

“I know the rules about December shopping. Did you look at your stocking yet?”

“Not yet; I’m going to drink my tea and grab a quick shower, and I’ll probably do it after that”.

“Are you going to play us some carols today?”

“Would you like me to?”

“I love it when you play carols; it brings back lots of happy memories. I heard you and Grandma practising on Saturday”.

“You could even join us if you wanted”.

“I don’t play them as well as you do”.

“Your voice is lovely, though”.

“Thanks. Is Grandma already up?”

“Yes – she’s stuffing the turkey”.

“I’d better get up and give her a hand”.

“I already offered, and she told me she and Becca have a pretty good system”.

“What time are the guests arriving?”

“I think dinner’s at one-thirty. I expect Rick and the family will be here before noon; I’m not sure about everyone else”.

“Is it a ‘dress for dinner’ kind of day?”

“It was when we were here back in ‘94”.

“Oh yeah – I remember Mom coming down in her jeans and then running back up to put a dress on!”

“Did you bring a dress?”

“I brought a skirt and a nice sweater; I hope that’s okay”.

“I’m sure Grandma would be happy for you to come in jeans if you wanted to”.

“Well, it’s a denim skirt, you see!”

I laughed; “Very nice!”

“Thanks; it’s the warmest skirt I own, too!”

******

Auntie Brenda arrived at around eleven-thirty; she greeted us with smiles and hugs, went into the living room to put a few gifts under the tree, and then joined my mother and Becca in the kitchen to help put the finishing touches on Christmas dinner.

Rick and his family made their appearance just before noon; we met them in the hallway, exchanging hugs and handshakes and wishing each other ‘Merry Christmas’. Emma had been hanging a few extra decorations in the dining room when they arrived, and Sarah and Anna immediately joined her there, while Rick talked cheerfully with me as I helped him bring in a few presents and place them under the Christmas tree. Afterwards my mother served coffee from a silver coffee pot in the living room; I knew she only brought this pot out on special occasions, and Emma had helped her polish it the previous afternoon.

A few minutes later my father’s two younger brothers, Arthur and Bill, arrived with their wives; they had come together in Uncle Bill’s car. They were all dressed formally, my uncles in jackets and ties and my aunts in elegant dresses, pearls, and brooches. Emma sat down with them almost immediately and began to ask them questions about their homes and their families in her usual quiet way. By now she had changed into her denim skirt and sweater, and I had put on my jacket and tie in deference to the unspoken dress code.

My cousin Ann and her family were the last to arrive, and she apologized profusely to my mother for their lateness. “The girls were enjoying their Christmas presents”, she said; “They weren’t very impressed when we told them it was time to leave them behind to come to Northwood!”.

“Did you bring a few of the presents with you?” I asked, pointing to the backpack she was carrying over her shoulder.

“I did actually!” she replied with a smile; “How are you, Tom? It’s lovely to see you!”

We greeted each other with a hug and a kiss, and I bent over to introduce myself to Caitlin and Molly, but they were obviously wary of strangers, and four-year old Molly hid behind her mother’s leg. Emma laughed and said “Way to go, Dad!”

“Do you remember me, Emma?” asked Ann.

“I do – I remember you coming over to visit us last time we were here. I also remember you sending us a lovely card and note after my mom died; Dad and I really appreciated that”.

“Yes, we did”, I agreed.

“Do you want me to take that backpack?” Emma asked Ann. “Maybe if I have the toys I might be able to interest the children in playing with me”.

Ann smiled at her; “You are your mother’s daughter, aren’t you? I remember her taking Caitlin from me almost as soon as I walked in the door”.

******

As Becca had said there were nineteen of us sitting down for Christmas dinner. We had put two long dining tables together end to end and dressed them with festive tablecloths and decorative candlesticks, and the meal was served on my mother’s best china with silver cutlery and crystal glassware. The turkey had been cooking since early morning; it came with all the trimmings, along with the appropriate vegetables, and afterwards we had Christmas pudding and a selection of pies and cakes to choose from.

“When was the last time you had this many people around your table for Christmas dinner, Grandma?” Emma asked.

“I honestly don’t remember”, my mother replied with a smile. “There would have been eleven of us last time you were here for Christmas; that’s probably the most we’ve ever had until today”.

“Wasn’t there a time when Tom and I were little when we had all the aunts and uncles at once?” Rick asked.

“I’d forgotten about that”, my mother replied.

“We set up the tables in the music room, didn’t we?” I said.

“Yes, we did”.

“How long ago was that?” Emma asked.

“Before my time”, Becca replied.

“Maybe not”, I said; “I think you were a baby. You were born about the same time we moved here, and I definitely remember us eating in the music room, in this house”.

My mother nodded; “I think Tom’s right”.

“Thirty-three years ago, then”, said Rick; “It’s hard to believe we’re all that old”.

Rick was wearing a jacket and tie like the other men, but I noticed that for once he was not continually checking his Blackberry. I grinned at Becca; “I think there’s something missing from our brother’s personal accessories today”.

“Something small and noisy, maybe?”

“We’re not hearing any chimes or alert sounds. I wonder where that cheeky little Blackberry  is today?”

Alyson laughed; “I insisted he leave it at home; if anyone rings him on Christmas Day they deserve to be ignored!”

“I’ll check my messages when I get home!” said Rick.

“You are definitely an addict!”, I replied.

He shook his head; “It’s the world of modern business, I’m afraid”.

Emma tactfully changed the subject; “Grandma, are you going to play some music for us a little later?”

My mother smiled; “We’ll see how the afternoon goes”.

“Don’t let her get away with that excuse!” Auntie Brenda said with a smile; “I’m her sister but you’d be amazed how rarely I get to hear her play!”

“We’ve got lots of other musicians here, too”, my mother said; “Tom, Emma, Eric…”

“Do you play Christmas songs, Tom?” asked Ann.

“Does he play Christmas songs?” Becca exclaimed with a laugh.

Emma grinned at me; “Dad loves playing Christmas songs! I know for a fact that he and Grandma were practising on Saturday”.

I grinned at my mother; “I think we’ve just been smoked out of hiding!”

Emma looked across the table at Eric; “Did you bring your guitar?”

“I did, but I don’t really know any Christmas songs. I’ll be happy to play along, though”.

******

When the meal was over and the Christmas crackers had all been pulled, we took our coffee into the living room, where we spent a while retrieving gifts from under the tree and opening them. When we were done, Emma smiled at my mother and said, “Well, is it music time, Grandma?”

“If you insist”. She glanced at my Masefield relatives and said, “I know you’ll be wanting to get on the road soon; don’t feel you have to stay for this unless you really want to”.

“We’ll need to be getting these two home before too long”, Ann said apologetically, “but we’ll stay and listen to a couple of tunes if you don’t mind?”

“No, of course not”.

“We should get going before too long as well”, my Uncle Bill said, glancing at his watch; “We don’t want to be driving in the dark for too long”.

“Perhaps we could stay until Ann leaves”, my Auntie Joan suggested.

“If that’s what you want, dear”.

So we went back to the music room, carrying a few hard-backed chairs with us; my father apologized for taking the only armchair in there, but his brother Arthur said, “Don’t you worry, Frank – you make yourself comfortable”. My mother went over to a bookshelf in the corner where she kept a few music books; she selected an old red hardback with a faded cover, smiled at me, and said, “The Oxford Book of Carols?

“Sure. Why don’t you play some of the least guitar-friendly ones first, and then I’ll go get our guitars and we can play along with a few of the others?”

******

My Masefield relatives said their farewells at around four o’clock but the rest of us stayed in the music room for another half hour or so. My mother had played three carols and then insisted that we join in, so Emma and I accompanied her for a few of the old traditional carols I liked and Eric did his best to play along with us. Later on Emma and her cousins went out for a walk, and Becca and I told my mother to sit tight while we cleared up from dinner and washed the dishes.

Rick and Alyson ended up staying into the early evening; their children were obviously enjoying spending time with Emma, and when Alyson announced at about five o’clock that it was time for them to think about heading for home, all three of them protested. “Can’t we stay a bit longer, Mum?” asked Sarah.

“I don’t think Grandma was anticipating feeding us again today”, Alyson replied.

“Oh, nonsense!” said my mother; “The house is full of food, and anyway I’ll be surprised if anyone’s really all that hungry”.

“I’m certainly not!” I said.

“Nor me”, Becca agreed.

So my mother put some cheese and crackers out, with a few cakes and a bit of Christmas baking, and we continued nibbling in the living room while the children played board games and the adults carried on their quiet conversations. After a while Emma smiled at me and asked my mother if she had a Scrabble set anywhere; my mother quickly produced one from the sideboard, and Emma, Alyson, Sarah and I played a game for a while with a few of the others watching. I wasn’t surprised when my daughter won, although in the end the scores were quite close.

“Staying out here for a few days, then?” Rick asked me as Emma and Sarah were putting the game away.

“We don’t really have a time frame; I expect we’ll be here ’til Sunday morning anyway. Owen and his family are coming out tomorrow to spend a few days with his parents; I expect we’ll get together at some point”.

“I foresee more music in your future”.

“Maybe. How about you – straight back to work?”

“The office is closed ’til Monday but I’ll be working at home for a few hours tomorrow”.

“That’s too bad”

“Can’t be helped; we’ve got a big trial coming up in the new year and I’m a long way from being ready for it”.

“What sort of trial?”

“It’s a tax case; I can’t say much about it apart from that”.

“Corporate law then?”

He nodded; “That’s almost all I do. I used to do criminal law but now I leave that to a couple of the other partners who’ve made a specialty of it”.

“Are you going to see Alyson’s family over the holidays?”

“We’re going to make a quick trip to Edinburgh over New Year’s”.

“Do you have any commitments this Sunday evening?”

He shook his head; “I don’t think so”.

“Come for supper, if you like?”

He grinned; “You think you can squeeze us all in?”

“We’ll squeeze you in just fine. Do you like Indian food?”

“We do actually”.

“We’ll cook a nice hot curry, shall we?” I said to Emma.

“For sure”, she replied with a smile.

Rick glanced at Alyson; “What do you think?”

“Sounds lovely; can we bring anything, Tom?”

“How about if you bring the wine? Your husband seems to have a pretty discerning palate for it”.

“Yes, he does!” she agreed.

******

Rick and his family left at about nine o’clock, and a few minutes later Auntie Brenda said her goodbyes. As we stood on the front step waving to her, I could feel the damp chill in the air. “It’s going to be a cool one tonight”, I said to Becca.

She glanced up at the darkened sky. “I think we might get some rain; I can’t see any stars up there, and I can feel the moisture”.

“Maybe even snow”, Emma said with a smile; “I don’t think I’ve ever seen snow in England!”

“The children love it but the adults don’t; we’re not set up for it the way you are in Canada. The roads get slick and the trains get cancelled and everything gets chaotic”.

“Well, it’s a holiday, so it’s a good day for it”.

“Except that there’ll be thousands of holidaymakers on the roads tomorrow”.

“I guess; I didn’t think of that”.

My father was pale with exhaustion by then, and my mother and Emma helped him up to bed while Becca and I cleared up the debris from the living room, put the leftover food away, and washed and dried the dishes. My mother came back downstairs after about half an hour; she came into the kitchen, kissed me on the cheek and said “Thank you”.

I smiled at her; “You’re welcome”, I replied. “That was a wonderful dinner today. Is Dad okay?”

“He’s fine; he’s just very tired. Apparently Emma is too; she asked me to tell you she’s going to go to bed with her new book and she was wondering if you’d bring her up a mug of hot chocolate?”

“I’ll do that. Are you going to stay up for a while?”

“Do you mind if I don’t? I’m rather tired too”.

“You’re entitled, Mum”, Becca replied; “You did an amazing job today; you’re a wonderful hostess”.

“Yes, you are”, I agreed.

“Thank you both”, she said; “Are you two going to carry on your hot-chocolate-by-the-Christmas-tree tradition tonight?”

I glanced at Becca; “What do you think?”

“I wouldn’t miss it!”

“I’ll put the kettle on”, I said to my mother. “Shall I bring you up a mug when it’s ready?”

“That would be lovely”.

“How about Dad; shall I bring one for him too?”

She shook her head. “He was barely able to stay awake to change into his pyjamas; I’m sure he’s already fast asleep”.

So while my mother went upstairs again to get ready for bed I boiled a kettle and made the hot chocolate. I took a cup up to my mother, dropped another one off with Emma, and then came back down the stairs to join my sister in the darkened living room. I turned on the Christmas tree lights and stoked up the fire, and we sat side by side on the chesterfield. Becca kicked off her shoes, drew her legs up underneath her and cradled her mug in her hands. “You didn’t get any calls from Meadowvale today”, she said.

“No; we told them we’d be tied up with a family gathering this afternoon and evening. We talked to Joe and Ellie and the kids yesterday, and Will and Sally. We’ll probably call Krista and Steve tomorrow, and Beth”.

She took a sip of her hot chocolate. “Our brother did rather well at being present in the present today, didn’t he?”

“He did; I can’t believe he went for a whole day without his Blackberry”.

“Well, he didn’t have much of a choice, did he? Alyson made him leave it at home”.

“One day out of three hundred and sixty-five”.

“What do you want to bet he’s on it right now, furiously checking messages and answering emails?”

I laughed; “Probably! His kids were sure having a good time with Emma today, weren’t they?”

“She’s good for them”.

“They’re good for her, too”.

“It was nice to see Ann and Mark”.

“It was, and Dad didn’t do too badly with their kids either”.

“No, he didn’t. It helped that they were at the other end of the table from him”.

We lapsed into silence, and for a few minutes the only sounds were the crackle of the wood fire and the ticking of the old clock on the mantlepiece. Eventually she sighed and said, “You and I haven’t had too many Christmases together in the past twenty years”.

“No”.

“The last one would have been here, nine years ago”.

“Three years ago you missed it by one day, when you came out to us on Boxing Day”.

She nodded slowly; “The Christmas before Kelly died. I was so frantic, and she was so serene”.

“She was”.

“How are you and Emma doing this year, Tommy? Really, I mean?”.

“Okay for the most part”. I took a long drink of my hot chocolate and then set it down on the coffee table in front of us. “It’s been a different sort of Christmas for us so far, but mostly good”.

“How’s Emma feeling now about being in England? She doesn’t talk about it much with me”.

“She doesn’t talk about it much with me either. I know she still really misses home; she and Jenna talk a lot, and Jake too of course”.

“Jenna must really miss her”.

“I think so”.

“She’s been making some new friends here, though”.

“She has, and she’s really enjoying her cousins and grandparents”.

“Has Dad said any more about paying her fees?”

“No – I think he’s dropped the subject”.

“So telling him about the life insurance was a good idea?”

“Yes, but I should have done it a lot sooner”.

She was quiet for a moment, staring thoughtfully into the fire, and then she looked at me with a smile; “Do you remember the first year we came down here during the night?”

“You were eight, and I was home from university”.

“I couldn’t sleep with excitement about Christmas, and I came to your room and woke you up…”.

“I seem to remember I wasn’t very happy about being woken up”.

“But you were so nice about it! We talked for a while and then we snuck down here, and you turned on the Christmas tree lights just like this, and we sat and watched them for a while”.

“Actually we sat and watched them ’til you fell asleep, Small One, and I carried you back up to your bed”.

“Did you? I don’t remember that!”

We both laughed softly, and she drained her mug and set it down on the coffee table. “It was always such a comfort to me when you came home from university for Christmas. That’s how it feels this year too; just having you and Emma here makes it so much better for me”.

I smiled at her; “You’re in a pensive mood tonight”.

“I am, aren’t I? Maybe it was the churchgoing last night; it’s been a few years since I’ve gone to the Christmas Eve service”.

“You used to go with Mum sometimes”.

“Yes I did, and I was glad to go with you last night. Whenever I came home from visiting you and Kelly and Emma I always resolved to go more, but then my life seemed to swallow me up again and my resolutions seemed to evaporate into thin air”.

“The busy life of a doctor”.

“It’s crazy, isn’t it? You’d have thought losing Mike would be a wake-up call for me but I don’t seem to have learned much from the experience”.

“You’ve been slowing down a bit since we came back”.

“I’ve been trying to, but I still can’t escape that sense of being driven”.

“It’s a Masefield family disease”.

“You’ve found the cure for it somehow, though”. She stifled a yawn; “Well, I think it’s about time for me to find my bed”.

“Yes, I think I’ll find mine too”. As she got to her feet I took her hand and said “Listen, Becs – about church”.

“Yes?”

“If you’d like to go from time to time, you’d be very welcome to come with Emma and me”.

“To Banbury Road, you mean? Is it like your church in Meadowvale?”

“In some ways it is, but there are some differences; there are more university students, and there’s more of an ethnic mix”.

“Well, I’ll think about it; you know I still have lots of questions. I know you found faith but it still seems to be really difficult for me”.

I got to my feet, and we made our way quietly up the spiral staircase. At the door of my room, she kissed me on the cheek and said, “Goodnight, Tommy”.

“Goodnight, Becs; see you in the morning”.

******

Link to Chapter 15

‘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 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 5

Link back to Chapter 4

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

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

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

“That’s right”.

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

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

“What time is the service?”

“The church sign says nine”.

“That’s kind of early”.

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

“Right”.

******

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

“And we appreciate that”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

“He’s an atheist, isn’t he?”

“Yes – and also a very good debater”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

“But you and I talk about almost everything”.

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

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

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

******

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

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

“Yes”.

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

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

“Right”.

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

“I wonder if he’s still here?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Just missing home”, she said quietly.

“I understand”.

******

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

“Sure; lead the way”.

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

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

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

“Right”.

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

“That’s right – she was”.

“I liked the service okay though”.

“So did I”.

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

“Yes she did”.

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

“I know what you mean”.

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

“I know what you mean”.

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

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

“How far is that?”

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

“That’s a long walk”.

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

She laughed softly; “I guess not”.

******

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

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

“How have you been feeling?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s your oncologist saying?”

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

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

“Then why are you asking me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Fosters, then?”

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

“Questioning what?”

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

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

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

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

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

“How very convenient for you!”

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

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

“No – I’m not afraid of that at all”.

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

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

“That’s ridiculous!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You do?”

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

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

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

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

“It’s not verifiable evidence”.

“Neither is the fact that you love Mum”.

“What an absurd comparison!”

“I don’t think so”, I replied softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think so”.

“It was an old folk song they arranged”.

“Do you know it?”

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

“What’s the key?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

“I did”.

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

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

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

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

“Does she ever perform in front of people?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fair enough”.

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

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

“Your dad definitely thought I was!”

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

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

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

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

“I guess I will!”

******
Link to Chapter 6

‘A Time to Mend’, Chapter 3

Link back to Chapter 2

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

I landed at Heathrow Airport on Easter Sunday in the early afternoon. Becca was waiting for me in the arrivals lounge, standing on the edge of the crowd and waving furiously in my direction; twelve years my junior and slightly shorter than me, she was dressed casually in jeans and a light spring jacket, her dark hair hanging loose to her shoulders. I walked over to her, and she greeted me with a warm hug and a kiss; “Hello, you!” she said.

“Happy Easter, Becs”.

“Same to you. You look tired; here, give me your bag. How’s Emma?”

“She’s fine; she drove me to the airport yesterday”.

“Oh right – I keep forgetting she’s got a driving license now!”

“I know; doesn’t seem that long since she was a baby, does it?”

“No”. She looked up at me with a sympathetic grin; “You really do look wiped out there, Tommy! Do you want to pick up a coffee for the road?”

“That would be great”.

“Come on, then – there’s a coffee shop in the corner over there”.

We lined up for a few minutes to get our coffees, and then made our way out of the terminal building into the spring sunshine and across to the multi-story car park. We took an elevator to the top level, where we found Becca’s little Renault squeezed between two bigger cars; she opened the doors, threw my bag in the back and said, “In you get, then”.

I slipped into the car beside her, and she leaned over and gave me another kiss on the cheek. “Oh”, she said, “before I forget – Owen told me to remind you to ring him some time this evening; they’re not leaving until first thing in the morning”.

“Right – he mentioned that”. My old friend Owen Foster, who had been a doctor in Headington for many years, was a senior partner at the medical practice where Becca worked. I had hoped to get a chance to see him while I was in England, but it had turned out that he and his family were going to France for a few days during the Easter holidays.

Becca started the car, backed out of her parking spot, and drove down toward the exit ramp. I took a sip of my coffee; “Any news about dad?”

She shrugged; “He’s lost a lot of weight and he gets tired quickly, but none of that’s especially new”.

“When’s his next chemo treatment?”

“Tuesday; this will be his third”.

“How’s it going?”

“I think he’s finding it harder than he expected – especially the nausea”.

“I expect he just takes himself off to his room when he’s feeling sick, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah; he lets Mum help him, but I’m not allowed anywhere near him when he’s like that, and I’m sure no one else is either”.

“No trouble with infections so far?”

“No, but they’re going to have to be very careful about that; it’s harder on older people. And there’s another problem too – he’s in denial”. She pulled the car up to the ticket machine, paid for her parking and then pulled out onto Cromer Road. “He’s still trying to downplay it all”, she continued; “I’ve heard him say several times that he’s just got to get through the chemo and then he’ll be fine”. She shrugged; “I don’t know if he really believes that, but it’s the line he takes when he’s talking to anyone”.

“Including Mum?”

“Yes”.

“That’s got to be hard for her”.

“I would think so”. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her frown thoughtfully. “Did you and Kelly talk honestly about her cancer, Tommy? Right from the start?”

“We did the second time. The first time she ignored the symptoms for a while”.

“Right – I remember that”.

“She was worried, but she didn’t want to tell me or anyone else for fear she’d have to leave Emma and go into hospital. But the second time around we’d learned our lesson; we were honest with each other from day one”.

“It just took you a bit longer to tell everyone else”.

I nodded; it had been a sore point between us at the time. “She didn’t want to tell a lot of other people until she was sure of the diagnosis”.

“I get it, Tommy, I really do. I didn’t at the time, but I do now”. She reached across suddenly and squeezed my hand. “I’m sorry; let’s change the subject, shall we?”

I glanced at her; “You okay?”

She nodded; “I am. It’s just that every now and again…”

“I know”.

For a moment neither of us spoke; I sipped at my coffee, and she steered the car down through the tunnel under the runway and out the other side, heading north toward the M4. I watched as the cars sped by in both directions, and then I said, “I guess Dad doesn’t go into the office anymore?”

“No, and Rick’s glad about that; ever since Dad retired Rick’s been wishing he would leave him alone”. My younger brother had followed the career path my father had wanted for me; he was now a senior partner at my father’s old law firm.

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

“I’m afraid not; that’s one of the constants you can rely on! But on a happier subject – two interviews this week?”

“Yes – Headington and Cowley. I’ve already done phone interviews for Reading and High Wycombe”.

“That one in Headington – isn’t that where you did your first student placement?”

“Yes. It seems like a long time ago now”.

“You’re such an old man, Tommy!”

“I know; I get regular reminders of the fact from Emma!”.

“It must be a bit strange to think about going back there”.

“A little. It was a reasonably good experience, but of course a lot will have changed in twenty-two years”.

“I’ll be hoping for that one or Cowley; it would be nice if you were close by”. She reached over and put her hand on mine. “How are you feeling about this move? Are you sad?”

“I am. I don’t think I really believed it until I started getting involved in the interview process, but now it’s starting to sink in. I know nothing’s certain yet, and I know if I’m successful there’ll be lots of good things about living in the U.K. again, but to be honest, at the moment I’m strongly tempted to intentionally mess up the interviews”.

“I know”, she said quietly, “and I understand”.

“It’s not that I wouldn’t be glad to be closer to you and Mum, of course”.

“I know. What about Emma; how’s she feeling?”

“She’s excited about being here for a longer period of time. She likes the idea of getting a closer look at her English roots, and she wants to be able to spend some time with Mum and Dad too. But there’s another part of her that’s dreading the thought of leaving Meadowvale”.

“Of course”.

“She’s relieved that we’re not planning to sell the house; it gives us a tangible link with home”.

“Right. And then there’s her nursing training”.

“She still wants to do that, whether it’s here or back home”.

“I was talking to her about that last week. She really likes volunteering at the special care home, doesn’t she?”.

“She does; I could easily see her making a career in geriatric nursing. But to be honest I think she could do any kind of nursing she wanted”.

“Well, there’ll always be a need for nurses in England. Even if the move here turned out to be permanent, she’d probably never be short of a job”.

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

“I understand; one day at a time”.

  • * * * * *

I thought of Northwood as my childhood home, but in fact we had moved there when I was eleven. My earlier years had been spent in the Oxford suburb of Summertown, but I had actually preserved few links with the place of my birth and early childhood. It was in Northwood that I had formed my friendship with Owen; it was Northwood and the surrounding countryside that he and I had explored as teenagers; it was in Northwood that we had learned to play guitar together and had shared some of the most formative conversations of my early life. It was true that the emotional dynamics of my home life there had been complicated, but I still had a deep sense of connection with the village itself and the countryside around it.

It was a community of about two thousand people, situated in the Thames Valley just north of the town of Wallingford. It was strangely elongated; the southern area was built beside the river, but the village narrowed around the main street as it ran north-east, and then widened out again into a northern part which was almost a second community. The northern part, where my parents lived, was actually the original village of Northwood; it had expanded toward the river in the eighteenth century when the bridge across the Thames was built, with the Kingfisher Inn beside it.

We crossed the bridge at around three-thirty, driving north on the high street and passing the old 15th century church on the west side of the village green. We turned east at the church, and I looked around at the street I had once known so well, noticing the absence of a few familiar buildings and the addition of some new ones. About half a mile further on, we turned right onto a long private driveway running down past a copse of ancient elm trees; at the end of the driveway loomed the familiar bulk of my parents’ home. Built in the late eighteenth century, it was a large two-storey grey stone house with an old courtyard and stable complex off to one side, most of it now converted into garage space. Behind the house there was an apple orchard, a wood, and a small lake.

Becca pulled the car up by the front door and turned off the engine. “Well, here we are”, she said, “and here’s Mum; she must have been watching at the window”.

I looked up and saw my mother emerging from the front door; she had put on a wool cardigan before coming outside to greet us, and I noticed immediately how tired she looked, and how white her hair had turned since I had last seen her at Kelly’s funeral. I opened the car door and got out to meet her; “Hello, Mum”, I said.

“Hello, Tom; welcome home”.

I put my arms around her to give her a hug; “Happy Easter”.

“Happy Easter to you, too”.

Becca was already lifting my bag out of the trunk of the car; she kissed my mother on the cheek and asked, “How’s Dad today?”

“Alright this afternoon; he had a good nap earlier on. Shall we go inside?”

We followed her up the steps and through the doorway into the hall. The well-remembered spiral staircase swept up on our left; I took in at a glance the polished wood floor, the antique telephone table, the ornate wallpaper. My mother was already leading the way into the large living room; it was built on the southwest corner of the house, with bay windows on the two outside walls providing plenty of light. As we entered, my father rose slowly out of one of the armchairs by the fireplace, and as I crossed the room toward him he held out his hand. “So you finally came home again”, he said; “It took you long enough”.

His voice was not as strong as I remembered. He had always been tall and wiry, but now he seemed gaunt and skeletal, his back a little bent, his face narrow and pale, his few remaining wisps of grey hair combed straight back from his high forehead. The ravages of the deadly disease he was fighting were plain.

“How are you, Dad?” I asked.

“Not dead yet, at any rate”. He greeted Becca, smiling at her as she kissed him on the cheek, and then moved over to the sideboard, asking “What will you have to drink, Tom?”

“Oh, I don’t know – Scotch, I guess”.

He looked at me over his shoulder with a quizzical expression on his face. “Well? Do you want it or not?”

“Sure – yes please”.

“Becca? Dry sherry?”

“Yes please, Dad”.

He poured drinks for everyone and passed them around; “Sit down”, he said. We found our seats, he and my mother on each side of the hearth, Becca and I side by side on the chesterfield. “So”, my mother asked, “How’s Emma? Did you bring us some new pictures?”

“I did”. I reached into the inside pocket of my jacket, brought out my photographs and passed them to my mother.

“Her hair’s getting long again”, my mother observed as she looked over the pictures one by one and passed them to my father.

“Well, it’s been over two years now”. Emma had shaved her head along with her mother when Kelly’s hair had started to fall out from chemotherapy. Kelly had protested, but Emma had insisted and I had sided with her, knowing how badly she needed to feel she was doing something to show solidarity with her mum.

“Are these recent?” my mother asked.

“Just a month ago”.

“She looks more like Kelly all the time”.

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

“Good heavens!” my mother exclaimed, pointing at one of the photographs; “Is that Jenna?”

“Yes it is”.

“She’s certainly shot up in the last couple of years, hasn’t she? Look at this, Frank”.

My father glanced at the photographs as she handed them to him. “She takes after her mother too, doesn’t she?” he said.

“She does”, I agreed, “and Jake’s more like his dad”.

“A month ago, you say? Plenty of snow still, at that time”.

“You never can tell how long it’ll stay”.

He looked at me with a bemused expression on his face; “You’ve certainly picked up the accent over the years”.

“It comes and goes; in Meadowvale they still think I sound English”.

He handed the pictures back to my mother; “Two interviews this week, then?” he asked.

“Yes, one at Gypsy Lane School in Headington, and one in Cowley; I’ve already done two by phone”.

“Headington or Cowley would be nice”, said my mother.

“You could live here”, my father suggested.

“I could, or I could start out here and then look for a place of my own once I get my feet on the ground”.

“Don’t be ridiculous – prices are far too high around here; on your salary you’d never be able to afford it. With what you could get from selling a house in Saskatchewan you’d be in no position to buy; living here would be the only reasonable thing to do”.

“I’m not thinking of selling or buying; I’d be making enough on a teacher’s salary to be able to afford to rent a small house, and I can supplement that with the money I make on renting out our place back home”.

He shook his head. “Renting is never a good idea; you’re paying out money and getting nothing in return. If you’re not going to buy, you’d be far better to stay here”.

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

There was an awkward silence for a moment, and then Becca spoke. “Are Rick and his family still coming for supper?”

My mother nodded; “I hope you don’t mind, Tom? I thought it would be nice for us to have a family gathering, with it being a holiday today”.

“Of course not. I wouldn’t mind catching a nap before they come, though; it was a long trip, and as you know I’m not especially good at sleeping on planes”.

“That would be fine; I’ve got your old room made up for you”.

“Maybe after I’m done this drink I’ll go up and get settled in”.

  • * * * * *

A few minutes later I excused myself, picked up my bag in the hall and climbed wearily up the spiral staircase. As I pushed open the door to my old room I was confronted with a world of memory, not so much from my childhood years as from the times that Kelly and I had stayed in this room together; we had come to Northwood three times over the years as a married couple, twice in summer and once for a shorter period at Christmas. I put my bag down on the bed and walked over to the window, looking out over the lawn with the brick wall of the orchard off to the left; she and I had stood side by side at this same window many times during our last visit in the summer of 1997, and for a brief moment the sense of her presence was so strong that I almost felt I could reach out and put my arm around her.

I heard a quiet knock on the door, and as I turned Becca slipped into the room. She came over and put her hand on my arm; “I just came up to make sure you were okay”.

“Thank you; I’m fine”.

She kissed me gently on the cheek, smiled at me, and said, “Are you sure?”

“Yes. But you’re a good woman, Becca Masefield”.

She shook her head; “I don’t know about that”.

I went over to the bed and began to unpack my bag; “Are you working tomorrow?”

“No, I don’t start again until Tuesday, and I’m not on call either; I did my bit Good Friday and yesterday”.

“Are you staying out here, then?”

“Just tonight; I’m going home tomorrow after supper”.

“Maybe some time tomorrow we could wander down to the Kingfisher for a pint?”

“I’d like that”. She smiled at me; “Okay, I’m going to leave you to rest now”.

“I just need half an hour with my head down on my pillow; after that I’ll come down and help you and Mum with supper, or do whatever you like”.

“Alright, then, sleepyhead”, she said with a mischievous grin; “See you in a bit”.

  • * * * * *

My brother and his family arrived just before six; we were sitting in the living room again when we heard the sound of the car pulling up to the front of the house. My mother went out to greet them, and a moment later we all stood up as they entered the room. Rick had let his hair grow a little since the last time I had seen him; it was beginning to turn grey, and his face seemed pale and thin, but he gave me a warm smile as he shook my hand; “Welcome home”, he said.

“Thanks; it’s good to see you”.

I turned to greet his family. His wife Alyson was petite, with dark hair and a pleasant Scottish accent, dressed quietly in jeans and a sweater; she worked as a researcher for a wildlife conservation unit in Oxford. They had brought their three children with them; Eric was sixteen, Sarah fourteen, and Anna eleven. None of the children knew me well; they had never visited us in Canada, and even on our last trip to England we had not seen very much of them. Eric was tall and thin like his father, while the girls tended to take after Alyson.

My mother and Becca moved some extra chairs into the semi-circle around the hearth, and my father handed drinks around. When we were all sitting down my mother glanced at me with a smile; “Tom’s got some lovely photographs of Emma”, she said.

So my pictures made the rounds again. Anna, glancing at one that had been taken at the old Reimer farm a couple of weeks ago, said, “I didn’t know she rode horses”.

“She’s been riding since she was a little girl”, I replied.

“Was this taken at a riding school?”

“No, it’s the old farm where Emma’s grandpa grew up. We still have relatives out there”.

“So this is one of their horses she’s riding?”

“Yes”.

Sarah spoke in a quiet voice; “How old is she now?”

“She turned seventeen in December”.

“Is she doing A-levels or something?”

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

“Will she be going to uni?”

“Yes”.

“What does she want to do?”

“She wants to be a nurse”.

“What else does she like to do?” Anna asked.

“She likes outdoor things – hiking and canoeing and cross-country skiing. She reads a lot too, and she plays guitar”.

My brother gave me a wry grin; “Chip off the old block”.

Alyson glanced at her son; “Eric started to play guitar a couple of years ago”.

“I’m not very good yet”, Eric replied with a shrug of his shoulders.

“Uncle Tom’s been playing since he was a teenager”, said Rick; “I expect he’s got a guitar hiding around here somewhere”.

“Actually, no”, I replied; “I’m only here for a week, so I left it behind”.

“You surprise me, bro – I thought you were inseparable from that thing!”

“I must admit I don’t often part with it, but it seemed easier not to bring it this time”.

“Do you and Emma play the same kind of music?” asked Sarah.

“Some, but she’s got likes and dislikes of her own too”.

“I should email her; it’s weird that she’s my cousin and I hardly know her”.

“She’d like that; I’ll give you her email address”.

My mother got to her feet; “Well, the food’s almost ready, so Becca and I will go and put it on the table”.

  • * * * * *

After supper my brother surprised me by suggesting that we take a walk in the garden together. The evening sun was close to the horizon; the sky had cleared and the temperature was dropping. We skirted the flowerbeds in silence; at the bottom of the garden Rick glanced at me and said, “So you’re really thinking of moving back, then?”

“I am”.

“Not thinking of going into the Law at long last, though?” I saw the mischievous grin on his face.

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

“Very well. We’ve got about twenty-five people now, partners and solicitors and so on, and we’ve started to build a rather good name for ourselves nationally”.

“You must be squeezed tight in that office”.

“We actually bought the place next door a couple of years ago so that we could expand, but we really need to move out of the city centre. We could lease a much more functional property down at the Oxford business park, but of course the old man won’t hear of it”.

“I thought Dad was retired?”

“Yes, but until a few months ago he was still coming in two or three times a week; he was constantly interfering with the day-to-day running of the place, not to mention long-term decision-making. We’ve had several opportunities to merge with national firms – which would have been really good for our business – but in his mind Masefield and Marlowe is still an old Oxford chamber and he wants to keep it that way”.

“Does he actually have a say in the matter, though? Surely, if he’s retired…?”

“There are ten partners; all he needs to be able to do is influence six, and of course the majority of them go back to his time. If he wants to make an issue of something it’s not hard for him to get his own way”.

“That must be frustrating”.

“You could say that”.

“I suppose Jack Marlowe’s retired now too?”

“He is, and he’s a lot better at it than the old man; I honestly believe there are days when Dad thinks I haven’t got a clue”.

“He has an enduring habit of trying to control our lives”.

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

“I’m afraid so”.

We ambled along in silence for a moment in the fading light, our hands in our pockets, and then he said, “If you move back here we’ll have to invite you over to the house for a meal some time”.

“That would be nice. How long is it now that you’ve been in the new place?”

“A couple of years”.

“I vaguely remember hearing about it after the fact, but of course I was a little preoccupied at the time”.

“I know”.

“I remember last time we were here you were having renovations done on your old place so you could sell it and make some money on it”.

“God, yes! That was a bit of a nightmare, but eventually we got it done. We’ve got a nice property now out at Cumnor Hill: newish house, six bedrooms and a couple of reception rooms, big garden, lots of trees. Good neighbourhood, too”.

“Pretty swanky out there, as I recall”.

He shrugged; “I suppose so. You’ve got to have money to live there but it’s comfortable and the children like it, and I’m not worried about crime or gangs or drugs or student parties or anything like that”.

“I’ll look forward to seeing it”.

He was quiet for a moment as we skirted a line of rose bushes, and then he said, “So what’s made you think of coming back after all these years? I always got the impression you saw the move to Meadowvale as permanent?”

“I did”.

“What’s changed?”

“I’d like have another try at making things right with Dad while I still can”.

He looked at me incredulously; “You want to make up with him? The old man’s not the reconciling sort, you know”.

“I know. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that if there’s even the slightest chance I want to give it a try”.

“You’re serious about this?”

“I am”.

He shook his head in disbelief; “Well, that’s put me in my place. I was sure you were thinking about the will”.

I was astonished; “The will?”

“Yes; Dad’s got a considerable sum of money stashed away, you know”.

“I assumed he’d leave everything to Mum”.

“I’m sure most of it will go to her, but I won’t be surprised if there’s a smaller amount for each of us, too”.

“I can honestly say I hadn’t even thought of that; until you mentioned it, it never even occurred to me”.

“No, I believe you”, he said apologetically, “and now that we’re talking about it I can’t for the life of me imagine how I could have thought such a thing”. He glanced at me with a sheepish grin; “Sorry, bro – I spend far too much time with millionaires and lawyers. Everyone I know thinks money’s what makes the world go around – the more of it the better”.

“Well, I’ve always known that’s the way Dad thinks, so I can’t really hold it against you”.

“But I should have remembered that you don’t think like that; you’re the least worldly person I know”. He laughed softly again. “I think you’re a romantic dreamer, of course; you always have been, but greedy you’re not”.

“Well, I was lucky that my romantic dreams came true – at least for a while”.

He gave me a sideways glance, his face suddenly serious; “I’m really sorry about Kelly”. He shook his head again; “I know I should have written or called or something, but to tell you the honest truth I never know what to say in that sort of situation. What on earth does one say?”

“There’s really nothing to say”.

We strolled along in silence for a couple of minutes, listening to the sound of the birds in the treetops as the sun got close to the horizon. Eventually he spoke again; “So is there a plan?”

“A plan?”

“For fixing things with Dad”.

“Not really. Hopefully I can move back here, get a job, visit Mum and Dad and try to be as helpful as I can”.

“Is Emma looking forward to it?”

“I think so; she likes England and she wants to help Mum and Dad if she can. Of course, she’s going to miss Meadowvale”.

“Totally understandable. She’s a good kid, Becca tells me”.

“Yes she is. And your three? They were quiet at the table tonight”.

“They like Mum, but Dad can be a bit intimidating”.

“Of course”.

“They’re doing well though, for the most part”.

“Sarah’s growing up fast”.

“Yes she is; turning a few heads already, so I’m told, although of course she’s still only fourteen”.

“She’s got a birthday coming up soon, right?”

“She has”. He grinned at me; “I’m impressed – I’m not much for remembering those kinds of things myself, as you know”.

“Well, I was married to a girl who thought family was really important”.

“Emma must have her admirers too?”

“She had a boyfriend for a while but he broke up with her just after Christmas. She’s known him since she was eleven and they were dating for over a year, so she was pretty sad about it”.

“What happened?”

“He was a year ahead of her, and he went away to university”.

“Someone else caught his eye?”

“That’s what I hear. It’s too bad actually; his mum’s a teaching colleague of mine, Mary Stonechild, so it’s been a little awkward”.

“Small town”.

“Yeah”.

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

“No. I didn’t notice it right away of course; it came on gradually”. He frowned; “The truth is, I don’t really understand all of it. I don’t understand how he could have had the disease for two or three years without it being noticed”.

“You’ve heard them talk about the difference between indolent and aggressive lymphoma?”

“Yes”.

“Indolent lymphoma isn’t especially dangerous because it doesn’t show many symptoms, but that means that it tends not to be detected until it’s well established. And of course it can turn into aggressive lymphoma, which is what’s happened to Dad”.

He frowned at me; “That’s not what Kelly had, though?”

“No, she had breast cancer. Eventually it moved into her lymph nodes and from there to the bones and the liver, but it wasn’t true lymphoma”.

“Right”.

We ambled along in silence for a couple of minutes, each of us occupied with our own thoughts. Eventually he said, “Well, shall we walk back up to the house? I think I’m ready for another drink”.

“Okay”.

  • * * * * *

I spent a quiet few days at my parents’ home, visiting with my mother and father, going for walks in the village and the old familiar countryside around, and making occasional trips into Oxford with Becca. The atmosphere when my father was awake was as tense as ever, but he usually slept each day for at least an hour in the early afternoon, and then my mother and I had some long, quiet conversations. In the middle of the week Becca drove me to Cowley for a morning interview, and afterwards we went out for lunch at a nearby pub.

My father went into the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford on Tuesday for his third chemo injection. As I expected he was fine on Wednesday, but the next day he began to feel seriously nauseous and by the middle of the day he was keeping to his room. My mother spent a lot of time with him, but when I asked her if there was anything I could do, she shook her head and said, “He doesn’t like to be seen like this, Tom”.

“I understand”.

  • * * * * *

On the Friday afternoon I had my interview at Gypsy Lane School in Headington. The head teacher, Siobhan Macnamara, was a dark-haired Irishwoman, a little older than me; she was brisk and businesslike, and in her questions she wasted no time in getting to the point. I saw the head of English, Kathy MacFarlane, smiling furtively at a couple of her head teacher’s comments; she herself took the lead when it came to specific questions about my teaching skills and experience, and I could tell she had read my resumé carefully and been impressed with it. The third person in the room was one of the school governors, but he took very little part in the interview and seemed to be there mainly to listen. I left at the end of the afternoon with a sense that things had gone well and that there was a good possibility I might be successful.

  • * * * * *

My mother had invited the whole family to dinner again on Saturday night; I had spent the afternoon in Oxford with Becca, and it was already about five-thirty by the time we arrived at my parents’ place. Rick and Alyson and their children got there about half an hour later; it had been a working Saturday for my brother, and he was still wearing a dark suit and maroon tie when they came into the living room.

My father was getting over his nausea by now but he was still looking tired and pale. Nevertheless, he insisted on getting up and pouring drinks for everyone; Alyson accepted a glass of sherry from him and then took her seat beside me on the chesterfield. “How did your interviews go?” she asked.

“Alright, I think”.

“I hear you were back on familiar ground yesterday?”

“Yeah; there’ve been a few changes since the last time I was there”.

“How soon will you hear anything?”

“A couple of weeks”.

“Any sense of which way things might go?”

“I thought both interviews went quite well, but of course I’m unfamiliar with the protocol here so I can’t know for sure”.

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

“Well, it’s the Easter holidays so I didn’t actually get to see either school in action. They’re definitely bigger than I’m used to; our school in Meadowvale has about six hundred students, and the one in Headington has fifteen hundred. I know the school culture’s going to be very different, and so is the curriculum; I have to admit that I find that a little daunting”.

“You can’t let them know that, though”, my father said. “They’ll read it as a sign of weakness. You can’t appear to be weak or they’ll take advantage of it”.

“Who are ‘they’, Dad?”

“Your pupils, of course”.

I shrugged. “I’ve never viewed teaching as a battleground”.

“You might find things a bit different here”.

“Of course; I’m sure the learning curve will be steep”. I glanced at my brother, who was sitting across from us in a wing chair, nursing a glass of scotch. “You were obviously working today”.

“Yes – I’ve got a client with a very important trial coming up in the next couple of weeks. We’re burning the midnight oil getting ready for it”.

“A criminal trial?”

He shook his head. “Commercial”, he replied; “There’s rather a lot of money involved”.

“Are you working on this alone?”

“God, no!” he exclaimed; “There are about five of us on the team. The files already fill dozens of boxes”.

“Do you have to read them all?”

“If I’m going to do a good job for my client”.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Eric shaking his head a couple of times, his eyes on the ground. He had refused my mother’s offer of a cup of tea, and was sitting in the corner of the room, obviously rather bored with the proceedings. Sarah was sitting beside him on a hard-backed chair, and I could tell by the expression on her face that she was waiting to catch my eye. I smiled at her; “How are you doing?”

“I’m alright. I emailed Emma”.

“That’s what I hear”.

“She’s read Harry Potter”.

“She has; she’s a big fan. You are too, are you?”

“I’ve read all of them; they’re fantastic!”

“I think there’s another one coming out soon, isn’t there?”

“In July; I can’t wait!”

“Are these those boy wizard books?” my brother asked with a smile.

“‘Boy wizard books!’” Becca quoted with a bemused grin; “Is it possible my brother hasn’t quite registered the biggest phenomenon in recent publishing history?”

“Are they really that big? I don’t know anything about them other than the name and that there are wizards and witches in them”.

“They’re well on their way to becoming the best-selling fiction series of all time”, I replied. “Kids have been lining up in bookstores for hours when new titles are released”.

“And there are films”, Becca added; “Highly successful films, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars”.

“Money, Dad”, Eric said sarcastically; “Surely you’ve noticed that?”

Rick glanced at him darkly; “Watch your tongue, Eric Masefield”.

Eric tossed his head dismissively and looked away again. Sarah glanced at him for a moment with a little frown, and then turned back to me. “Anyway”, she said, “I’ve emailed back and forth a couple of times with Emma; she seems really nice”.

“I knew she’d be glad to hear from you”.

“We mainly talked about books”.

“Do you like Ursula Le Guin too?”

“I love A Wizard of Earthsea; it’s my favourite book!”

“Oh yeah? It was one of my favourites when I was a teenager, too. I read it when it first came out; I think I was ten or eleven at the time”.

“Have you read her other books?”

“I think I’ve got almost every book she’s written; I think she’s brilliant. Emma really likes her, too”.

“That’s what she told me. But she said she’s reading George Eliot right now; I don’t really know anything about him”.

“‘Her’, actually; ‘George Eliot’ was her pen name, but her real name was Mary Ann Evans. Her stuff is really different from Ursula Le Guin’s”.

“Emma says her books are fantastic”.

Alyson smiled at her daughter; “You’ve found a kindred spirit”.

“I’m looking forward to meeting her; she’s really interesting to talk to”.

  • * * * * *

The following morning, as Becca and I were finishing our coffee at a crowded café outside the departure lounge at Terminal Three, I said, “Rick seems to have inherited Dad’s work ethic in a big way”.

“Well, I can’t really talk there, can I? I’m just as much of a workaholic as either of them”.

“Can I ask you a personal question?”

“You know you can”.

“Do you ever see Mike?”

Immediately she looked away. Mike Carey was a paramedic; he had been her boyfriend for about eighteen months and they had lived together for almost a year, but he had ended their relationship just after Christmas. The previous summer, while they were still together, they had come to Meadowvale to visit Emma and me; while they were with us we had taken them camping for a week in Jasper National Park.

“I know where he’s staying”, she said, “and we know each other’s phone numbers, but we haven’t really talked since we broke up”.

“Sorry; it’s not really my business”.

“Don’t be silly; you and I don’t keep things from each other. To be honest I’m still finding it hard; the hardest part is knowing it was my fault”.

“You can’t be sure of that”.

“Tommy, spare me the sympathy; you and I have talked about this enough times to know I’m the one who’s got to learn to get my compulsive work habits under control. He was tired of being short-changed when it came to time together, and who can blame him? I certainly can’t”. She shook her head slowly; “It’s just that I don’t seem to be able to do anything about it”.

“You’re good at what you do, and you enjoy it”.

“Owen’s good at what he does, and he enjoys it, but he’s not driven like I am”.

“You’re still in touch with some of your high school friends, right?”

“I swim once a week with Stevie Fredericks, and we always have coffee afterwards”.

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

She laughed; “Not for a long time!”

“You two did pretty well in gymnastics competitions in high school”.

“We did”. She smiled at me; “Those were good days”.

“Kelly and I had our struggles with being over-busy, you know”.

“She told me that. I found it hard to believe; you always seemed so relaxed when I was with you”.

“That was because you almost always came in the summer time. During the school year it was a lot harder”.

“I know teachers are busy”.

“Yeah, and there were other things too. Kelly was working full time, and we were running the Sunday night group a couple of times a month, and attending a midweek study group at the church, and Ellie and Darren and I were driving down to Saskatoon regularly to play gigs. For a couple of years there we were running so fast that we barely connected with each other from morning to night”.

“But you worked it out?”

“Eventually – I gave up gigging with Ellie and Darren, and Kelly went down to half-time at the special care home. It wasn’t easy though; she loved her work and I loved my music. We had to decide what came first, but it wasn’t black and white; that’s what makes it hard, sometimes”.

She frowned thoughtfully, opened her mouth to speak, and then closed it again.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Are you telling me that you and Kelly were really in trouble for a while?”

“I’m telling you that we were an ordinary married couple and we had our struggles. Fortunately for us we were able to work through them; if we hadn’t, then yes, we could have been in trouble”.

She drank the rest of her coffee in silence, put the cup down on the saucer and said, “I suppose I always knew you were an ordinary married couple, but…”

“You enjoyed putting us on a pedestal”.

“I suppose I did. Life was pretty chaotic for me here, and coming to Meadowvale was always such a wonderfully restful thing. And of course, Kelly was always so good to me”.

“I have to say, our struggles were more my fault than hers”.

“Why are you telling me this, Tommy?”

“Because I don’t believe in all those neat personality classifications between Type A and Type B people. I think people are people; we all struggle with getting our priorities right and we all fail sometimes”.

She smiled sheepishly at me. “That’s your gentle brotherly way of telling me to quit blaming my Masefield genes and work harder at getting my life under control?”

“No, that’s my gentle brotherly way of saying we’re in this together”. I glanced at my watch. “And speaking of time…”.

“It’s that time, is it?”

“I’m afraid so”.

We got to our feet reluctantly; “Give my love to Owen and Lorraine”, I said.

“I will – and you give Emma love and hugs from me. Tell her I’ll see her in a couple of months”.

“I will. You don’t have to stand and watch me go through security, you know?”

She grinned at me mischievously; “But if I leave and then they turn you away at the gate, who’s going to drive you back to Northwood?”

“Well, I guess you have a point there, Doctor Masefield; they might even arrest me and throw me in jail”.

“Exactly! So you’ll let me stand and watch while you go through the line, then?”

“Oh well – if you insist”.

“I do”, she said defiantly, “So let’s go down to the gate, shall we?”

Link to Chapter 4