It’s a long time since Richard’s seen his father. There are reasons, but he doesn’t expect him to understand. He arrives at the care home tense, but conscious of an optimistic energy, too, that might just be able to transcend whatever hostility his father shows. In the foyer, he’s affable with the receptionist, smiling at the other staff who pass through as he sits waiting, doing his best to stay buoyant. In the old days, of course – last time he was here – he’d just have wandered down the corridor to his father’s room. But things have changed. He sits patiently, waiting, trying to keep his body relaxed, expansive, his arm stretched out along the back of the sofa, his ankle on his knee, so that he won’t unconsciously fold his arms across his body and wither away to the child he used to be.
Even now, at forty-five, it seems important to project confidence to his father, to protect himself from his hostility. It’s a thought that seems ridiculous, even paranoid, as he sees his father wheeled towards him, smaller than he used to be and hunched towards the back of his chair in his formal trousers and checked shirt, with his hands folded feebly on his lap. But he knows why he thinks it. He understands too clearly what his father can be.
They stop in front of Richard and he pauses for a moment, smiling at his dad, but letting him take him in, too, his confidence, his good clothes, his expensive shoes.
‘Hello,’ he says.
His father looks at him darkly. ‘You took your time.’
Richard laughs now, makes eye contact with the blonde woman behind the chair, who leans round to cajole his dad. ‘Oh come on, Frank. It’s not his fault. You know –’
‘Yes. I know.’ Frank cuts her off sharply, with just enough of the old menace for Richard to wonder what they think of him here. The woman looks hurt for a second, but then shrugs and gives Richard a complicit glance. He tries to throw her back a look of sympathy before he stands to take charge of the chair.
She steps away, maintaining the correct distance, both of them following the expected procedures perfectly.
‘I think we’ll just go for a walk,’ Richard says to her.
‘Ok then.’ She raises her voice, leaning towards his dad again. ‘See you later, Frank. Have a good time with Richard.’
His dad shifts irritably in the chair, his mouth thinning and the lines around it deepening.
‘I’m not deaf.’
She walks away without answering and Richard notices something hurt in his father’s face as he watches her leave. He’d like to talk to his father about the tone he uses with the staff, about how it’ll push them away, result in difficulties he can’t foresee, but now isn’t the time. As they leave the care home, he takes off his mask but sanitises his hands, surreptitiously, so his dad can’t see. He’s never talked to him about it, but he already knows what he’d say. He pulls his own mask off irritably and pushes it down the side of his cushion.
‘I thought we could go down to the river,’ Richard says.
‘Good, yes, the river. That’s fine. You can take me there.’
Behind the wheelchair, Richard smiles at his dad’s constant thrusting to stay in charge. They cross the road and he pushes him through the carpark and onto the path to the water.
‘Who suggested the river?’ his dad says when he pauses to let a dogwalker past and leans forward to check on his dad.
‘No one. We came here last time,’ Richard says. His dad meets his eye for a second, then pushes his comment away, physically, with an impatient thrust of his hand. He knows why. He was walking last time. Painfully, but nonetheless, walking. To recall that last visit draws attention to the difference. He sees his dad’s face close. To distract him, he says, ‘There’s barges down here today, Dad. Look at that one. It’s got flowers on its roof.’
His dad looks, grunts, refuses to engage. ‘Well don’t just stand in the middle of the path,’ he says suddenly. ‘Come on. Take me somewhere where we won’t be in the way.’
‘I was just stopping so I could hear you, Dad.’
‘Yes, well, no need. Carry on, please. I’ll tell you when to stop.’
Richard freezes. If he lets him talk to him like that they’ll be back there before he knows it, in the old place, where he’s too cowed to speak at all. He feels himself cradling his maturity like a fragile egg he’s scared of dropping. Sometimes he thinks he shouldn’t see his dad, that the confidence he loses with him infects the rest of his life, giving his dad the power to burrow beneath his job, his marriage, his friendships, and weaken them all.
‘Come on,’ his dad says impatiently, throwing a severe look over his shoulder.
‘I will when I’m ready,’ he says, trying to sound equally stern. ‘I’ll find us a safe place to sit.’
There’s that look again. He glances away, reminding himself that it isn’t the same as it used to be. His dad’s power has weakened. They walk on in silence. The sun is on the river and near the edges the barges are reflected in its surface. There are people around, but most seem happy to pause while the wheelchair passes; most walk off the path to avoid it. He pushes the chair under the bridge, as he’d planned, and stops where they can see the cricket club. On the opposite bank, people are drinking outside a pub.
‘Look,’ he says to his father, pointing at two swans treading water around six grey signets, because they’d said at the care home that his dad was too withdrawn some days, that he needed stimulation to engage with the outside world.
‘I’m not a child.’
He resists the urge to comment on how protectively the swans cluster around their signets, although it nudges something painful in him. Instead, he sits quietly, watching them. He wants to ask his father how he’s been, how he’s coped through the long winter months, but he can’t find a way to enquire that wouldn’t invite hostility or make him tell him he’s neglected him. It’s quieter here. He parks the wheelchair at the end of a bench and moves to put the brake on, flinching as his father’s bony hand waves him away. ‘I can do that.’
‘All right.’ He watches him struggle – his father’s movements are stiff – but he doesn’t intervene. He sits on the bench, looking out at the water, saying nothing. He’s sick of trying to make conversation; he hears appeasement in his voice every time he brings up a new topic. The swans are still swimming around the ruffled grey balls of feathers. He imagines their feet moving frantically below the water’s surface and puts his arm along the back of the bench, looking at his father. In another half hour, he can deliver him back to the care home and get on with his life. He accepts that idea for a moment, then rejects it, viciously. He wants more than that, wants some sort of relationship after all these years.
‘Anna and the children send their love,’ he says.
‘What does that mean?’
He thinks of retorting that some grandparents would be pleased to hear from their grandchildren, would be interested in them, would even have asked about them themselves by now, but he holds it all back.
‘They’re thinking about you, Dad, and hoping you’re well.’
‘That’s what they call it, is it?’
‘Yes. They’re doing well at school. Adam’s on the football team. Catherine won a maths award.’
A minute passes by and then another. ‘That’s the cricket club over there,’ he says.
‘Yes.’ His dad feigns disinterest, but he can’t help looking. He clears his throat; a little smile twists on his lips. ‘Will used to play for the youth team there.’
‘Yes.’ He hears an edge in his own voice too late and tries to undo it. It’s good that his dad’s showing interest in something. After all, that’s what he brought him here for. ‘I used to watch him sometimes,’ he says, more equably.
Richard thinks that it must be more than fifteen years since Will played cricket. It’s irritating that his dad will talk about what his other son did twenty years before, but not about what his grandchildren are doing right now. He breathes deeply, tries not to let the sadness show. ‘Yes,’ his father says. ‘He made the men’s team when he was only seventeen, you know.’
‘Yes, I remember being impressed by that.’ He thinks about his half-brother now, overweight, self-centred, tucked away in Birmingham somewhere. ‘He must have been good,’ he says.
‘Yes, well, they were both athletic, you know, Will and Rosie. It always strikes me as funny that either of my children could play sport at all. My own coordination was never that good.’
Either of my children. Richard takes a deep breath, but it’s happened so often he’s almost used to it. Sometimes he wonders whether his father does it on purpose, to see what his reaction will be, but he glances at him now and he seems oblivious, unaware that he’s said anything unusual.
‘But you played cricket too,’ he says. He’s determined to make this positive, not to get dragged down.
‘Yes, yes, that’s right, I did.’ His father smiles fully for the first time, showing crooked, greying teeth. ‘I played over there, that’s right.’ He gives a dismissive laugh.
‘And you were good. Really good. I came to watch you a few times.’
‘Did you?’ He frowns. ‘I don’t remember.’
‘Yes. I remember watching you catch someone out. I was about fourteen.’ He remembers how insanely proud he’d felt, standing up, cheering, as his father held the ball in the air and met his eye.
‘I think that only happened once.’
‘I’m glad I was there, then.’ They both smile. Richard feels the atmosphere lighten between them and welcomes it, though the conversation’s been difficult – he can’t ignore its emotional cost. ‘It’s nice that you’ve lived round here for so long,’ he says. ‘You can still see the places that’ve been important to you.’
‘Hmm.’ His father pauses and he thinks he isn’t going to answer, but then he says, ‘It isn’t the same, you know, not being at home.’
‘I can imagine that,’ he says softly.
‘But it was getting too much for Libby. My mobility issues.’ He waves a hand across his legs, the wheelchair, as though there was a spell he could do to take it all away.
Secretly, he doesn’t understand it – doesn’t know why his stepmother couldn’t cope when his father is still so coherent, so very much himself. When he moved into the home, he could still walk – not up the stairs, but at home, he could easily have had a room downstairs. There are two back rooms and either would have done.
She’s happy enough to live on his father’s money, he thinks bitterly. Surely she should be able to put up with the inconvenience of having him live at home. He feels pity for his dad. Sometimes he thinks he’s been sent away to die. There’s nothing he can do about it, though, no conversation he could have with Libby that wouldn’t involve her getting offended and putting what remains of his relationship with his dad at risk.
‘At least you see her, though.’
‘Some days, yes.’ He pauses. For a whole minute, maybe more, he looks out at the river. ‘I didn’t see her for a long time, though, during the pandemic.’
His father chuckles softly. ‘I didn’t see anyone.’ His eyes narrow. He looks away, over the water at the swans with their signets.
‘I’m sorry.’ He remembers Libby’s annoyance when he asked whether she couldn’t bring his father home for a while, get him out of the care home to spare him from the isolation and the risks of getting ill in the care home. They’d almost fallen out about it, but at the time it had seemed worth it. He’d felt his father’s life was at risk. ‘It must have been hard,’ he says.
His father nods, then straightens himself in his chair. ‘It can’t be helped.’
‘Sometimes she used to come and wave through the window.’
‘Good.’ He’d been lucky, at least, to have a room on the ground floor.
‘Those were the better days, when I got a glimpse of her.’ He sees it now – how much his father loves Libby. It makes things click into place so he can understand them better. He looks at him, overcome by pity. ‘Or when I heard from one of you,’ his father says now.
‘Thank you for writing so much,’ his father said stiffly. ‘It, you know, it brightened some difficult days.’
‘I’m really glad.’ He leans forward, smiles at his dad and he is pleased – genuinely so. It’s unusual for his father to talk to him like this. He isn’t quite sure where it’ll take them, but the tone of the conversation feels safer than usual. They sit looking at the river while the swans glide gently from the bank and hover near the middle of the river.
‘It is good to see the cricket club,’ his dad says suddenly.
‘We could go nearer if you like.’
‘No, no. There’s no point.’
‘Just to look, maybe.’
‘No.’ He smiles slightly. ‘It isn’t as though I can still play.’
‘I’m sure you’ve still got the skills somewhere.’
‘Not now, no.’
There’s a tennis ball in his pocket, still there from a game of catch with his daughter the other day. He tosses it to his dad gently. He’s so close it’s basically just dropping it in his hand and it can’t go wrong – except somehow, it does. His dad’s fingers can’t close around it. He jerks forward but can’t stop it bouncing to his footrest and off onto the grass.
Richard gets up but can’t reach it in time to stop it rolling into the water.
‘Why did you do that?’ His father’s voice is cold again, sharpened with the old pure, calm anger.
‘I’m sorry.’ It’s a reflex apology, delivered over his shoulder, because now that he’s let the ball drop, how could he even start to say it was to give him back some of his old confidence, remind him of who he used to be?
He reaches for the ball, manages to stop it before it floats further from the edge. He shakes it into the grass. He senses his father’s eyes on him and it makes him turn slowly back towards him. He’ll take him back to the home soon, he thinks and every time he thinks of him in the future, he’ll remember this. It’ll block him from writing to him, ringing, emailing or visiting – this and the conversation they’re about to have.
His body tenses. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says, shaking the ball, trying to get as much water out of it as he can.
His father shakes his head. Richard sits on the bench, puts the wet ball on the wood beside him and looks out at the swans. Will would never have done that and neither would Rosie, he thinks. His father’s children. The gap between him and his father feels bigger. He thinks through the things he could say, but doesn’t start. There seems no point now.
‘I should have caught that,’ his father says.
‘I should have caught it. Here, give me another chance. While I’m expecting it.’ His tone is different. Richard doesn’t understand.
‘It’s wet,’ he says.
Richard looks at his dad for a long moment, wondering what’s going on. He suspects a trick, but shrugs and drops it gently into his dad’s outstretched palm. He watches his stiff fingers close round it and thinks of his own daughter, running backwards, laughing, tracking the ball as it falls high from the air. ‘See?’ his dad says softly. ‘Still got the old magic.’
He laughs then – ‘Told you so’ – and his father sits up straighter, leaning towards him, his hand touching Richard’s arm for a moment. ‘Perhaps we could have a walk round the field after all?’
‘Sure.’ He gets to his feet and the hurt is gone for a moment – he breathes easily, conscious of the absence of dread as he sets off, pushing his father over the bridge towards the pitch.
Sarah Turner has a degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Oxford and she is also a graduate of the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing MA, where she was awarded the only distinction in her year, as well as the annual course prize. In the past, she has also published fiction reviews in the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement (as Sarah Rigby).
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Image Credit: Steven Garner, The Art of English Village Cricket. stevengarner.co.uk