Link to Chapter 9
Tuesday September 16th would have been Kelly’s 45th birthday. I woke up just after five o’clock and couldn’t get back to sleep, so eventually I got up as quietly as I could, got dressed and went out for an early morning walk. It had rained during the night and the roads and sidewalks were still wet; the sky was clearing but the air was cool, and I was glad of the sweater I had put on under my light jacket.
When I got back to the house at around six-thirty I found Emma in the kitchen in her pyjamas, boiling a kettle of water. “I heard you go out”, she said quietly as she poured the hot water into the tea pot; “I thought you might like a cup of tea when you got back”.
“Thank you; maybe I’ll have a quick shower first and then have my tea with you after, if that’s okay?”
“Sure”. She covered the tea pot with a cosy, then turned to me and put her arms around me. “I love you, Dad”, she whispered.
“I love you, too”, I replied, enfolding her in my arms.
We were quiet for a couple of minutes, holding each other, and then she said, “You’re nice and warm”.
“Are you cold?”
“It’s damp outside; it makes a difference”.
“Yeah; I should have put my bunny hug on before I came down”.
I kissed her on the top of her head; “I’d better get moving here. Will you be okay for a minute while I go take a shower?”
“I’ll be fine”. She frowned, and then said, “Well, not fine, but you know what I mean”.
“Are you going to walk down to the school this morning?”
“Do you mind if I walk with you?”
“Of course not; I’d be glad of your company. What are you doing for the rest of the day?”
“Later on this morning I’m going to meet Grandma at the hospital; we’ll visit with Grandpa for a bit and then we’re going to go out for a coffee”. She paused, and then added, “Grandma knows what day it is today”.
“I know she does”.
She reached up and kissed me on the cheek; “Go take your shower or this tea will be even stronger than you like it by the time you’re done”.
It took longer than a few days for my father to get out of hospital. The infection proved to be very stubborn; it was actually two weeks before he was able to go home, and even then he was very weak and not able to do much more than sit in his armchair. His doctors decided that he needed a longer period of time for the white blood cells in his body to build up again, and so they reluctantly decided to give him a two-month break from chemo. “It’s a shame”, his oncologist said to my mother, “because the spread of the cancer is slowing; the chemo’s having a good effect. It’s always a balancing act trying to get the dosage right; that’s the problem we’re facing”.
The JR was within easy reach of my school, and while my father was a patient there I dropped in to visit him almost every day after classes. I knew he was still uncomfortable with this but I persisted anyway, and after a few days he seemed to get used to the idea. Most days I only stayed for twenty minutes or so, and then walked home to Marston. Emma went down to see him regularly, and she and my mother frequently had lunch together at the hospital cafeteria. She and I took turns with cooking our evening meal, and with both of us busy during the day we rarely sat down to eat before about six thirty or seven.
By the time my father went home it was almost the end of September, and shortly after that Emma finally got word that all her security checks had come through and she could start at Marston Court any time she liked. She began almost immediately; some days she helped the recreation co-ordinator with activities for the residents, some days she helped at mealtimes or assisted with baths, and some days she went over very early to help some of the residents who needed a little more assistance with getting up in the mornings. She was busy almost every day but I could see immediately that she was enjoying herself.
By then we had made the decision to make Banbury Road Baptist Church our new spiritual home; we had accepted Kathy MacFarlane’s invitation to try it out earlier in the month, and we had both enjoyed it. I liked the warm, friendly atmosphere, the mix of traditional and contemporary music and the thoughtful preaching of Kathy’s husband Jim. Emma had also enjoyed getting to know Jim and Kathy’s two children, Matthew and Alanna; she and Alanna were the same age and they shared a love of music, but she liked talking with Matthew too, and the three of them quickly became friends.
At school I was gradually adjusting to my new environment. The buildings were different, the students wore uniforms, and their culture was urban rather than rural, but despite these superficial contrasts, the kids were much the same as they had been in Canada. I had the same range of abilities to cope with in each class, the one major difference being the large number of kids from ethnic minorities.
Colin Kingsley continued to be one of my challenges; he was cheerful and co-operative, but he was obviously struggling in most of his academic courses. I gave him extra tutorial help, and did my best to be supportive and encouraging, but none of this seemed to be having much impact on his progress.
Apart from sports the one area in which he was performing very well was his design and technology courses, especially the woodwork and carpentry he was doing with Simon Bennett. I had met Simon a couple of times, but in early October we arranged to get together specifically to talk about Colin; we met after classes one afternoon at Simon’s woodwork shop. He was a rough-hewn Yorkshireman of about my age, with a big nose and a rascally look about him, and I quickly warmed to him.
He showed me some of Colin’s work, and I saw immediately how good it was. “I’m not worried about Colin”, Simon said. “He’s never going to be an academic but right now the building trade’s crying out for lads like him. Nowadays lots of parents don’t want their kids to go into the trades of course; they want them to go off to university and get degrees. Fortunately Colin’s mum’s not like that; she’s not trying to pressure him into an academic life when she knows he’s not suited for it. She’s really supportive about his sports interests too; she goes to all his football games and encourages him in his running and all that”.
“She’s okay with the idea of him being a carpenter?”
“As far as I know; she’s always been positive about it at parent-teacher interviews”.
“What about his dad?”
He frowned and shook his head. “Colin never says much about him; I get the sense that there’s some bad feeling there”.
“Wendy and Mickey are divorced, I hear”.
“Yeah”. He frowned; “Do you know them?”
“I used to; Wendy and I were friends during my last two years of university, but we lost touch with each other a long time ago”.
“Well, you’ll be seeing each other again before too long”.
“Yes, I know”.
The next day I had a meeting after school with Margaret Greer, who was Head of Year Eleven and my immediate superior in the tutorial system. Margaret’s office was delightfully disorganized, and she had to move a pile of books to make room for me to sit down. We talked about several of my students who were struggling in one way or another, and eventually our conversation turned to Colin. Like Simon, it turned out that Margaret was not seriously worried about him.
“He’ll never be one of our great academic successes, but then he probably doesn’t need to be, does he? I expect he’ll leave school at the end of this year and go to a vocational college or something”.
“Yes, Simon Bennett showed me some of his work yesterday; he’s got an amazing talent for cabinet making”. I frowned. “It actually feels a little surreal having him in my classes. I knew his mum when we were in university”.
“She was doing her masters in English, and I was doing my teacher training. But then I went to Canada, and she went to London, and we lost touch with each other”.
“She’s an excellent person – very supportive of Colin. I’ve taught both her children”.
“She has more than one?”
“Oh, you didn’t know about Lisa? She’s Colin’s older sister; she’s been at university for a couple of years now. Excellent student – she specialized in Languages and she went out of here with A2s in English, French, German and Latin. She’s reading Modern Languages at university now – here in Oxford I think, but I can’t remember which college. I taught her French and German; she was a real delight to have in class. She’s got a very good ear for it; she sailed through her A2s with very little trouble”.
“Funny how siblings can be so different!”
“Isn’t it? That’s so often the way, though. So you had a meeting with Simon then?”
“Yes. I saw in Colin’s file that he was doing well in Simon’s classes so I thought I should find out more”.
“Good for you. Simon can be a bit of a rough diamond but I’m a big fan of his. Some people at this school are a bit snobbish about the vocational classes we offer, but for kids like Colin they’re vital. Simon stands up for them, and he speaks his mind; sometimes he annoys people but at the end of the day there’s absolutely nothing he wouldn’t do for his pupils, and I approve of that”.
“I quite liked him, actually”.
“Good; if you two keep in touch about Colin, that’ll be a big help”.
In mid-October, just before the end of term holiday, the Year Eleven short reports were due to go home. At the end of Colin’s report I typed the words, “Interview requested”; then, on a separate piece of paper, I wrote a handwritten note:
You said on the phone the other week that we’d probably see each other at parent-teacher interviews. Well, now’s the time! Colin’s struggling a bit, as I’m sure you know. Please call or email me to set up an appointment. The official appointments are on Wednesday and Thursday next week, late afternoon or evening, but I could also do Friday late afternoon if that’s better for you. Please let me know. It will be nice to see you again.
Three days later I found a not from Wendy in the in-box of my school e-mail account:
Friday 24th at four would work quite well for me for an interview. I look forward to seeing you again too.
I was just finishing my last tutorial on Friday when Wendy slipped quietly into my classroom; I saw her out of the corner of my eye as I worked with one of my Year Eleven students on a history project. When we were done I praised the girl and told her to keep up the good work over the holidays. She laughed, wished me a good holiday and left the room, and I got to my feet and went over to greet Wendy.
She was wearing a formal coat over a wool sweater and grey skirt. Her dark hair had a few streaks of grey in it, and there were some lines around her eyes, but apart from that her face was barely altered. I smiled and held out my hand to her. “It’s been a long time, Wendy”, I said quietly.
She took my hand and gave me a slow smile. “You look well, Tom; short hair suits you”.
I laughed; “I can barely remember having long hair, but I guess the last time I saw you…”
“It was almost down to your shoulders”.
“I cut it short in about 1984, I think”.
“How’s your dad doing?”
“He’s on a break from chemo right now”.
“Does that mean things are going well?”
I shook my head; “He got a nasty infection and he had to be in hospital for a couple of weeks. His white blood cell counts were just too low, so they had no choice; they had to give him time to build them back up again”. I smiled at her; “How about you; are your parents still alive?”
“They are – a bit old and frail, but they’re living in retirement down in Chelmsford, not far from my brother”.
“I read your latest book; congratulations!”
She smiled with pleasure. “Thank you! I hope you enjoyed it?”
“I really did; I found myself remembering some of the conversations we used to have in our last year”.
She laughed softly; “Hopefully I’ve learned a bit since 1982! How did you happen to come across it, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Completely by accident actually, in Blackwells, toward the end of August. That’s how I discovered you were back in Oxford”.
“Well, come and sit down, and we can talk about Colin”.
She followed me over to the corner of my classroom; I offered her a seat beside my desk and sat down in my own chair. “Colin’s a pretty amazing cabinet builder”, I said.
“Have you seen his work?”
“I’ve been down to the woodwork shop to have a look; I was quite impressed. I’ve had a conversation with Simon Bennett about him”.
“He really likes Mr. Bennett”.
“Yes, I know”. I sat back a little in my chair. “So – he’s doing well in his design and technology courses and he’s good at sports, but as you know he’s struggling in his academic subjects”.
“I’m new here but my colleagues tell me this isn’t a new story with him; I’m assuming you’ve tried everything there is to try?”
“I think I have. Of course I can’t sit with him every night but I ask to see his journal, and I remind him about homework and I work with him regularly. I also try to encourage him in his other activities; I go to his football games and athletics meets and we do a lot of things together. I actually really enjoy his company and I think he enjoys mine”.
“What about his dad? I understand he lives in London”.
“How do they get along?”
She shook her head; “It’s not a good relationship. Actually, at the moment they don’t see each other at all”.
“I’m sorry to hear that”.
She was quiet for a long time, looking down at the floor, and I began to wonder if I had said something to upset her. But eventually she looked up at me again; “Mickey’s involvement in Colin’s life was always part of the problem. The reason I left him was that he was abusing me. He couldn’t control his temper, and I got tired of being assaulted. Since our divorce I’ve done my best to keep his involvement in the children’s lives to a minimum”.
“I’m very sorry; I didn’t know”.
She shook her head; “Of course you didn’t; there’s always more to the story, isn’t there?”
“There is”. I looked down at my desk for a moment and then said “Look, the truth is that I’m not really worried about Colin; we all know not everyone’s cut out to be an academic, and with the skills he’s got he’s not going to have any difficulty finding a job. But I’m just wondering if there’s anything more we can do to help him with his academic work, even just a little. Would you like to go through his classes with me for a minute?”
“Yes, of course”.
She moved her chair over beside mine, and for a few minutes I took her through the list of classes Colin was taking, going over my records, talking with her about the homework he had handed in and the marks he had received. I noticed that she remembered many of his assignments, and on occasion she made comments about particularly difficult ones and how he had stayed up late working on them. When we were finished I sat back, smiled at her and said “Well, I’m impressed”.
“With you; you’re really on top of all this”.
“I try to be, anyway”. She shrugged and looked at me, tilting her head a little in a characteristic pose that I remembered well. “In my mind I’ve accepted the fact that he’s not going to be a university student, but I suppose somewhere inside I still keep hoping that if I just try hard enough with him something will click eventually”.
“Spoken like a true parent”.
“You’re a parent too, you said?”
“Yes”. I pointed to the small framed photographs of Emma and Kelly on the corner of my desk. “That’s my Emma; she’s almost eighteen”.
“May I see?”
I reached over, picked up the photograph and handed it to her. She looked at it in silence for a moment, then glanced across at its mate on the desktop; “That must be her mother?”
“They look so much alike; are you a close family?”
“We were, but Kelly died of cancer two and a half years ago, so now it’s just Emma and me”.
“I’m sorry; I can’t begin to imagine…”
“No”. I shrugged; “She had two bouts with cancer, but she came through the first one alright. We always knew it might come back, though. Still, we had fifteen more years…”
“Is Emma all right?”
“Most of the time she is. Like me, she has her days now and again”.
“Is she in school here?”
“She finished her Grade Twelve back home in June. She’s volunteering at a nursing home in New Marston right now; she’s hoping to go into nursing training as soon as we can get all the red tape worked out. I think she’ll be pretty good at it”.
“You’re obviously very proud of her”.
I nodded; “I only have one child, but I’ve been really lucky with her”.
She looked down at Emma’s photograph again. “She’s a very beautiful young woman”.
“She is; she takes after her mum that way – and in other ways, too”. I gave her a smile and said, “Anyway, getting back to Colin…”
“Yes; is there anything else I need to know?”
“Well, we should probably talk about his mock exams”.
“You know they’re coming up at the end of November, and you know how it works – he has to do well in the mocks or the school won’t recommend that he take his GCSEs. Even if he’s planning to go straight from here to a technical college or something like that, it’ll be a real help if he’s got even a couple of good GCSEs under his belt”.
“So you’re telling me the next four weeks are crucial”.
“That’s right. I don’t have anything new to say to you about helping him study – you’re already doing it, and more besides. But I’m going to try to impress on him the importance of these mock exams, and it would be helpful if you would do the same”.
“I’ll do my best”.
“I assume he’s planning on leaving at the end of this academic year?”
“Yes; he wants to go into cabinet making”. She gave me another smile; “He actually made new cabinets for our kitchen a couple of years ago, when he was only fourteen”.
“It must be encouraging for him that you let him do that”.
She laughed; “He gets quite embarrassed about them now; he says they’re not up to acceptable standards. I know he’ll replace them sooner or later”.
“Has he always been interested in woodwork?”
“Since he was a little boy; he used to watch my dad puttering around in his workshop, so after a while Dad started teaching him things”.
“I thought your dad was a clergyman?”
“He was – he is – but he’s always enjoyed carpentry on the side too, ever since I can remember”.
“That’s neat; I enjoy people with multi-faceted personalities”.
She laughed; “That’s one way of putting it!”
At that moment there was a knock on the door of my classroom. “Excuse me a minute”, I said; “I’ll just see who that is”. I got to my feet, went to the door and opened it to find Emma standing there, an impish smile on her face.
“Did you get lost?” I asked; “If I remember correctly, home’s in the other direction!”
She laughed and reached up to kiss me on the cheek. “I thought I might walk home with you”, she replied; “I’ve been doing baths, and we finished about half an hour ago. Are you almost ready to go?”
“I’m nearly done. Come in for a minute; there’s someone here I want you to meet”.
She followed me into the room, and I said to her, “Emma, this is Doctor Wendy Howard. Wendy, I want you to meet my daughter Emma”.
Wendy got to her feet, shook hands with Emma and said, “Your dad’s just been telling me about you”.
Emma grinned; “You’re Wendy Howard the writer, aren’t you? I’ve been reading your book about George Eliot; it’s amazing!”
“Emma’s a great reader”, I said; “She’s been helping herself to books from my bookshelf for a long time”.
“I read Middlemarch earlier this year”, Emma added, “and then The Mill on the Floss”.
Wendy nodded; “Good choices”.
“Thanks. And you used to sing with Dad and Uncle Owen, right?”
“I did, although it seems a very long time ago now”.
“Dad’s got a couple of pictures of the three of you in his old photo album; he used to have one on the wall of our house back in Meadowvale”.
“Wearing the worst early 1980s fashions, no doubt?”
“Yeah, the clothes are kind of cheesy”, Emma agreed. “But Dad told me once that you had one of the most beautiful singing voices he’d ever heard in his life”.
Wendy smiled; “His memory may not be as good as it used to be. Anyway, I’m afraid I’ve got to be getting along”.
“Listen”, I said, “would you be interested in getting together with Owen and me some time in the not-too-distant future?”
She smiled; “You mentioned that on the phone the other week”.
“Well, I have some good memories…”
“I know; me too”. She hesitated for a moment, and then said, “Let me think about it. My life’s quite busy, and it really has been a long time since I’ve sung any of those old traditional songs”.
“Do you still listen to them?”
“I do, but most of my singing over the last few years has been in choirs”.
“I understand. Singing or not, it would be good for the three of us to spend some time together again”.
She nodded slowly; “Yes it would. Still, like I said, let me think about it; I’ve got your number, so I’ll give you a ring”.
“It was lovely to meet you, Emma, and good to see you again, Tom; I’ll have a talk with Colin about what you’ve said. Thanks for all your help with him”.
“Not at all. I’ll look forward to hearing from you”.
“Right; bye for now”.
“How did she come to be visiting you in your classroom?” Emma asked me as we walked home together.
“It was a parent-teacher interview; her son’s in one of my classes”.
She glanced at me in surprise; “You didn’t tell me that”.
“I guess not”.
“Any particular reason?”
“Not really. He’s in my tutor group, too”.
“Quite the coincidence”.
“I guess so”.
“You haven’t talked about Wendy Howard very much over the years, Dad”.
“Well, I kind of lost touch with her after I moved to Canada”.
“But you had her picture on the wall for a long time”.
“A picture of the three of us, you mean”.
I shook my head. “I know what you’re thinking, Em”, I said quietly, “but Wendy was never my girlfriend. We were good friends for a while, though, and I’m glad to have made contact with her again”.
She grinned at me; “I’ll admit I was curious”.
“I could see that”.
“I’ve always assumed you and Mom had other dating relationships before you met; I wouldn’t have been upset if she’d been your girlfriend”.
“Well that’s a relief!”
We both laughed, and I felt a raindrop on my head. “Do you have your umbrella in that backpack?” I asked.
“Of course; I’m learning to be a good Brit!”
“I think you’re going to need it”.
Link to Chapter 11