Seven years ago I received a phone call. I was at my soon to be father-in-law’s house and I remember sitting on the stairs listening to a man, a nurse presumably, stumble through telling a relative of an unexpected death. I don’t think he’d had to do it before.
His voice shook as he told me my father had been taken ill suddenly, and they had been trying to reach me for two days.
How ill? Very serious. I’m afraid he died.
Actually I can’t remember the words of the conversation, it’s muffled as if I listened from under water. But I remember the feeling of shock. The not knowing what to do. The questions. Then came the self-recrimination, the guilt. The analysing. The loss. The emptiness.
In the same year I was to finish my part-time MA, get married and move house — when I attended five or six weddings of close friends — that year started with a funeral. My own Hugh Grant movie.
What I do remember is that Spring came the week after the phonecall. I remember it feeling late that year and that one of the last things Dad said was how hard a winter it had been. He didn’t live to see the bluebells that were scattered through the cemetery. He never saw my wedding photos or met any of his grandchildren. (He wouldn’t have been at the wedding, but that’s a whole other story.)
My relationship with my father was polarised between love and hate, resentment and misunderstanding. In the last year before his death I came to know and appreciate him in a way I had never managed as a child. I learned how alike we are.
Since having children I have come to understand him even more as I channel his parenting spirit in my worst moments. I have come to forgive him for the awful incidents that marred my childhood. He was a stay-at-home Dad, fixing cars in his garage while my poor mum worked all hours. It was Dad that swore and rushed me to hospital when I cut my head open playing tag in the house. It was Dad who hollered at us when we were caught climbing on the school roof or digging in the long-jump sandpit. I found out later it was also Dad that shadowed us into town when we thought we were all grown up going by ourselves.
My parents divorced when I was nine or ten. Life became more complicated and calmer all in one stroke. I regret the time I didn’t spend with Dad – then as a child and later as an adult when I no longer felt sick at the thought of visiting him. I regret that hubbie and I intended to visit him the weekend he died and changed our plans by text message. I regret that he never saw Spring arrive, seven years ago.
Now, every year when I see the daffs and bluebells, I make sure to be thankful and love the little things in life the way he did. On the anniversary of his death I take time to appreciate life. Today I felt the sun on my face and took time to read my book. I walked slowly through my day and looked for peace. Thanks Dad.
The royal-blue carpet gave Claire a headache, but the wood-burner offered too much welcome warmth to be ignored. She shifted her position on the sofa, minimising the amount of iridescent flooring visible above the pages of her book. Outside the window, snowflakes swirled and danced like winter sprites.
Not fancying the drive to Cambridge on Thursday if this keeps up. She wondered if there was a train. Maybe she could hire a car and come back for the Skoda after Easter. Sky would probably rather be in a comfortable car, instead of my mucky-brown rust bucket. Closing her eyes, Claire tried to remember what car her parents had owned when she was six and whether she’d cared. She realised she couldn’t picture any memories from her early childhood. Maybe I’m still concussed. It wasn’t that long ago; twenty years. And a bit, her brain added. What car would my parents have driven? They didn’t have Chelsea Tractors back then.
Claire shrugged off the thought and returned to her book. She could feel the story building tension, through her shallow breaths and the pain as she chewed the inside of her cheeks. The novel wasn’t her normal chick lit fare and she was surprised at how involved she had become in Katniss and Peeta’s lives.
The sound of chattering children skipped through the door and Claire sighed. Generally youngsters added life and colour to the hostels but it was impossible to read with their penetrating babble — designed to permeate a parent’s brain at twenty paces. It didn’t sound like a school party; the voices were too shrill and too few. She peeked over the paperback and saw two children lurking in the doorway. They were younger than Sky but not babies or toddlers. Claire had no idea how you guessed what age a child was. Somewhere between 2 and 6 at any rate. She smiled at them and dropped her eyes back to the page.
The words jumped and danced as she felt the tiny eyes staring at her. Raising her head she smiled again and felt compelled to fill the silence.
“Hello? Are you staying here?”
Two small faces nodded and four little feet crept closer.
“What are your names?”
The eldest, Claire guessed a boy, held his sister’s hand and pushed out his chest. His high-pitched voice twanged with an accent Claire couldn’t quite identify. “I’m Lucas and this is my sister Sophie. We have another baby sister, Lily. She’s having her nap so Mummy told us to go and play.”
Claire raised her eyebrows but didn’t comment. They seem young to be wandering round this building by themselves. Then she thought about the snow outside. What if they go out? They’ll freeze to death. Both children were the colour of breakfast tea, as if they spent most of their lives outdoors. I don’t know where they got a tan like that; it certainly wasn’t in this country.
Bubbles of information popped in Claire’s mind like fizzing champagne. The tanned skin, the unusual accent, the faces. She inhaled deeply and the smell of wood smoke from the burner released a rush of images in her mind.
Just a coincidence, that’s all. They’ll have flown home already. Who would stay for a British Winter and miss an Australian summer? Claire reached down for her bottle of water and tried to ignore the children without seeming rude. They stood in the doorway, all eyes, as if she was the hired entertainment. She felt them looking but didn’t want to make eye contact.
A shuffling noise alerted her to imminent conversation and she was exuding her best I’m invisible vibe when she heard a shout from the corridor. Both children immediately turned and therefore didn’t see the colour rush to Claire’s face as if someone had stoked the fire to a blaze.
Footsteps echoed around the wood panelling and Claire prayed the kids would run out to greet their father. They didn’t. Instead they called him in to meet their new friend.
Claire sat, shielded by her paperback, and watched the door.
“There you are, you toe-rags. When Mummy said play she meant outside the room, not on the other side of the hostel badgering guests.” He leant down and scooped the children up, balancing them on either side of him like panniers.
Claire thought he would turn without noticing her and was still trying to fathom how she felt about that when Lucas piped up, “we weren’t badgering you lady, were we?” and shone a toothy smile in her direction.
Josh followed his son’s gaze and his eyes met hers. He paused for what felt like a hundred years. Then he smiled and Claire had to swallow the lump in her throat.