Short Fiction by Jude Cook
One Wednesday lunchtime last June, with the sun like tiny diamonds on the streets of Bloomsbury, I pushed against the door of La Porchetta to find I was early, my father not there. This was unusual, as on our sporadic meetings in central London, it was always me, or more usually my brother and I, who were late, finding our father sitting alone, crisply-collared, his silver hair fastidiously cut and combed. A life-long civil servant, now blissfully retired with his second wife, Imelda (whom he met on a cruise), our father William had always ridiculed my habit of leaving my shirt untucked. ‘Ah, the dissolute shirt of the arts administrator!’ he would grin as I sat down with my Guardian or tube-book. Lately, before our infrequent meetings, I had been tucking it into my black jeans to stop him from making such comments. With him past seventy, and me the wrong side of forty, I felt we should be beyond such banter. We were very different, as we had always known, though, as my mother observed, we had the same wary, circumspect look around the eyes, which Matt had somehow not inherited. Perhaps we were more alike than I cared to admit, but I failed to see it. Anyway, that Wednesday, I was relieved to find he wasn’t present to make any sartorial digs. I sat down in a window seat, hot, sweaty, and at once untucked my shirt under the table, as the grinning waiter cruised over, menus aloft.
It seems to me that every set of parents presents a unique sheaf of problems for each set of children – any mutual moaning among friends (‘I always feel like I’m ten years old again!’ ‘God, so do I!’) always leaves one slightly dissatisfied. No, that’s not quite it, one thinks. There are other, more subtle, more individual notes, to each particular bouquet. Some complain that their folks had unrealistically high expectations for them; forever pointing to summits of achievement they could only fail to climb. Matt and I identified the opposite problem. A deficit of attention always twanged out, like a bum note in a fugue, after our lunchtime get-togethers, something we would discuss exhaustively as we journeyed back on the Piccadilly Line to our separate North London postcodes (‘Hold on, he didn’t ask a single question about my life!’ ‘Nor mine!’)
Though we had both done very well at school, unlike my brother I had chosen a career in the arts, running away at sixteen to live in squats, staging agit-prop theatre with dreadlocked girls who had names like Tabitha or Jewel. Regrettably, I ended up spending much of the eighties in a haze of drugs and booze; drifting, going nowhere. Only the nineties, and a messy divorce, forced me to get a proper job and give up my ambition of becoming a playwright. In my mid-forties now, I manage a chronically under-funded arts centre near Kings Cross, and consider myself lucky and successful to do so. Not my father, however, oh no. For him, this is failure of the most humiliating kind. I could see now that it pleased dad I hadn’t met with success in life (or the success I had hoped for). It seemed to correlate with some set of deep core beliefs about chance-taking and rule-breaking. My lack of achievement brought him a great sense of vindication, and, I now saw, great personal satisfaction and happiness. ‘Told you so!’ every wrinkle seemed to thunder, as they spoked away from the corners of his cautious eyes. ‘You should have stuck to the straight and narrow.’ This wearying triumphalism was my particular bouquet, the one I had to savour every time we met.
‘Peter! Hello. Terribly sorry, but the damn trains were delayed into Paddington yet again. Probably union action.’
Not even past his initial greeting, and he had already started on the Trade Unions! And no one, except for him, called me Peter, not even my mother. I had been a Pete for all my adult life.
‘Was it the wrong sort of leaves?’ I asked, standing to shake his hand. ‘It usually is. Or the wrong sort of sunshine.’
Putting the blame on the natural world seemed the simplest way to sidestep politics or religion, two subjects we knew to leave well alone.
‘God knows,’ he exclaimed, retrieving his composure. My father sat down carefully opposite me and opened the menu at the wine list. ‘Now. Let’s see what’s in the cellar.’
Not an enquiry or a smile! Business as usual, then. I studied him, as he nosed over the marked-up Chiantis and Sauvignon Blancs. Assessed him for change, for signs of physical deterioration in his face; a new liver spot here, or a collapse in a section of jowl or forehead there. But nothing seemed to have altered. He remained in tip-top shape, lightly tanned, his hair well-cut, compact, with those deep-set admonitory eyes. He was remarkably free of the depredations of age, and retained a young countenance – as if he had slipped past life’s great tragedies like someone leaving a shop without paying. And not a single glance at me!
‘How’s it going?’ I ventured after a while, in order to tear him away from his perusal.
‘Oh, fine. Imelda had her eye thing flare up yet again in February. But otherwise, all quiet on the Western Front . . .’
I let the pause fill with the sounds of chinking glasses, diners’ chatter, car horns. This was his cue to ask, ‘And you?’ But the words, as usual, never came.
‘I’ve been making good progress with the new place, despite the cuts in funding,’ I volunteered, knowing the only way to raise ‘my stuff’ was to impose it. I did this, as usual, out of a kind of embarrassment. Shame at how one-sided his conversation always seemed. I ploughed on: ‘The Arts Council can be brutal when they want to be. You know, they don’t really understand that the people working for next-to-nothing now, the actors, directors, producers, are the stars of tomorrow. The very people, the creative geniuses, who will sell newspapers and magazines, who will drive the Arts industries as an export for the next decade . . .’
My father tilted his glance up from the menu, a look of reservation about his eyes.
‘The Arts Council of Great Britain? I’m surprised they’re still going. When I worked in Whitehall, they were the joke body of public funding. Most of it went to the Opera, as far as I remember.’
‘Exactly! They just reinforce the status quo –’
Before politics – the politics of Class – became our hors d’oeuvre, I stopped and asked, ‘Do you fancy a starter?’
‘Yes. Maybe the antipasti . . .’
‘If you like.’
Outside, the pavements were as dappled as a Monet. I watched the play of light and shadow, of brilliant glare and dark; of rich shade provided by the canopy of plane trees that lined the street, shifting under a restless summer breeze. Drifting there were throngs of tourists, lunchtime office-workers, unemployed loafers, like figures in a dream. How unimpeded by time they seemed! Unbothered by the hours and days and years that were slipping from them at a rate of knots. All were merely enjoying the glory of a summer lunchtime; the camouflage of shadow, interspersed with chinks of light, passing across the faces of strangers.
‘Sir?’ the waiter advanced, addressing the older man, as he should. ‘Are you ready to order?’
‘I think so,’ my father shrugged.
I said: ‘I am, if you are.’
And so we did, relieved to have agreed on something.
After settling on a main course, my father looked at me, his face softening at once; the face I liked to remember from childhood, when he would take me and Matt on holiday alone; excursions to Normandy and the Dordogne without my mother, that I now saw might have cost him some emotional pain or effort to pull off. He would’ve been just another abandoned husband, awarded time with his kids, trying to do the best by them. What I most enjoyed on these trips was the moment when it came to order the wine – my brother and me sitting at whatever al fresco bistro or taverna we ended up in, at the close of the day. Our father had somehow become an expert in wine, and we were impressed at how he negotiated the tricky lists. Now, in Bloomsbury, after ordering the antipasti and a pizza each, he was about to demonstrate this skill afresh to the attentive waiter.
‘I think we’ll go for the Pinot Gris,’ he said after long deliberation. ‘From the Willamette Valley?’ he asked, glancing at me, wine being the one thing important enough to warrant consultation. ‘I usually avoid the vineyards of Oregon, not to mention California, but the Gris was particularly good that year.’
‘Which year was that?’
I looked again at the scandalous cost of the marked-up bottle. ‘Blimey. Are you sure we can . . . ?’ But his certainty, as ever, won me over. ‘If that’s the one to go for, then yes.’
My father handed his menu back to the sufficiently impressed waiter.
‘Yes, I’ve had it before. It’s a real treat for the palette.’
There was a brief silence, where we both searched for something to say, until my father announced: ‘Talking of medical matters, I went to see Doctor Morton a couple of weeks back.’
Doctor Morton was our old family GP in Rickmansworth. A roly-poly good-natured quack, whose hair I had witnessed turn from lustrous black, to silver, to non-existent, during the time I spent in the non-descript satellite town. The ferment of punk rock and the social upheaval of the nineteen-seventies took its time in reaching Rickmansworth, and I spent most of my adolescence longing to leave.
‘What did old fatso have to say?’
‘Ooh, nothing much except his usual surprise at how fit and healthy I seemed. I think he expects me to be dropping dead as I walk through the door.’
‘Was there any specific ailment you went in for?’ I fished, half hoping for a serious bout of flu, tonsillitis, or anything that placed him with us mortals.
‘Not really. After a certain vintage, they ask men to come every six months or so to check out the prostate.’
We both hesitated – me for possible bad news, my father to see if I wanted to make any humour out of the notoriously intrusive test.
‘Everything’s fine!’ smiled dad, knowing that only he had the right to allude to the comical sight of Dr Morton’s finger probing the secret cavities of his lower colon. ‘After a while you forget about the embarrassment and just conduct a normal conversation.’
‘You have a charmed life.’
And we both placed our finger on the nearest wooden object. My father the table, I the adjacent chair where my left arm lolled, a posture I knew would be annoying to him.
In moments, the waiter appeared with the Pinot, allowing my father a sip for approval. After a brief nod from dad, we were poured a full glass each. The wine really was as good as promised: like shavings of peach mixed with an indefinable icy sweetness. An elixir for a June day. When, after more talk of Dr Morton, the food came, my father immediately ordered another glass. This, as it turned out, wasn’t a good idea. The dragnet of daytime drinking was never for me, and I always strenuously avoided it. My father should really do the same. As our meal progressed, he became, as I had feared, loud and garrulous, steering the bark of our conversation onto the rocks of current affairs.
‘Norman Tebbit had it right, you know . . .’
Oh, Jesus. Against my better instincts I fired back:
‘How was that? He was wrong over just about everything.’
‘About getting on your bike. Work won’t just fall out of the sky for these dimwits and their joke degrees in surfing and media studies. They have to search for it. Rootle it out!’
How he had any experience of getting on his bike after clinging to his civil service job for forty years, like a barnacle, I had no idea. But he journeyed on, fearlessly, for the next half an hour, through an excoriation of the Trade Unions, Europe, VAT, Brexit and the ‘scandal’ of immigration, via a short visit to public-sector pay, finally to the dangerous unexploded bomb that was the revaluation of Enoch Powell.
Over a plate littered with pizza crusts, the second glass almost drained, dad leaned forward, and confidently announced:
‘I don’t suppose you still subscribe to all this climate change rubbish.’
‘I do, as a matter of fact.’
‘I thought you might . . .’
Tired as I was of his probing for a conflict, I couldn’t let him trash theories of global warming, not when the planet was at stake. But this he was about to attempt.
‘ . . . So you’re with the Warmists, then?’
‘I’m with the scientists.’
‘ . . . The science is discredited now beyond the point of no return. It’s merely a temporary madness! There have been periods of warming before, and this is just another.’
He leant back, flushed with drink, a streak of sunlight across his tanned brow.
I rallied gently, ‘You think so? All the evidence points to the fact that, if we don’t do something radical now, if we don’t cut emissions by eighty percent by 2050, we’re doomed. We’re going to be rolling around by horse and cart like in the nineteenth century. That’s if another ice-age doesn’t swing in, due to us destroying the Gulf Stream.’
‘Us!’ he exclaimed. ‘And whose authority says it’s us?’
I sighed, and wished I too were beckoning the waiter over for my third glass of white wine. It was pointless to pursue the argument. We had had it many times before, and it always ended with me clumsily citing Pascal’s Wager – that it was best to cut Carbon emissions now, just in case there was a causal link between the world’s big polluters and the oncoming catastrophe, in which case we were all stuffed.
‘I think we should avoid this one, don’t you?’ I said, like a parent to a teenager about to bring up a banned topic. My father’s views had solidified, ossified, over the years into those of the far-right reactionary. Despite being an immigrant herself, Imelda and he had joined Immigration Watch, a hateful organisation one notch down from the English Defence League. They also went to Glyndebourne, supported fox-hunting and thirsted for the day when the burka was banned. All in all, very wearying for a left-thinking liberal such as myself. But he was my father, so, like much else I put up with it.
‘Maybe,’ he mused, like a suicide pulling back from the brink.
We had so far avoided the ongoing financial crisis, the conflict in the Middle East, the budget deficit, and the latest Conservative cabinet reshuffle so I didn’t see why we shouldn’t also side-step climate change. I had even tried to lighten the debate by telling him the old joke about the Tories reopening all the mines again, just so they could have the pleasure of closing them for a second time, but this had been met with stony indifference.
Then, with a surprising non-sequitur, my father stated: ‘You know, I’ve never understood what your mother saw in that man.’
Now this had to be the drink talking. Our mother, Patricia, or Pat, as everyone knew her, had run off with her pastor when we were in our early teens. This had come as a grave blow to William: not only had he been trumped sexually, but spiritually also. A lifelong atheist, he had submitted to devout Pat’s choice of Biblical names for his children. Then she had cuckolded him with the dog-collared lothario who had baptised us. Pat still lived with her ‘Man of the cloth’, as our father called him, and the two males had never got on. My father had never condescended to call his rival by his name, which he knew perfectly well. It was always ‘that man.’
‘She seems happy enough,’ I shrugged. ‘Leave her to her happiness. She leaves you to yours.’
My father paused, slightly stunned. It had maybe never occurred to him that he was finally happy, and this novel thought was now turning over in his mind. Unlike my lefty theories, he had nothing to rebut this notion with. But then, like Lear, he had always but slenderly known himself. And he and mother were lucky to have found new partners in their forties and fifties. It wasn’t the average fate – the cost of a failed marriage is usually bachelor or spinster loneliness until whatever variety of cancer carries one under. Their good fortune was another thing my brother and I marvelled at on our long journeys home.
‘I suppose you’re right . . .’ he finally conceded, and sat back, the stem of his third glass between his fingers. ‘I’ve never really looked at it in those terms.’ He had always blamed me for ‘leading Matty astray’, but knew, at least, that he could rely on me for the truth.
Then, another surprise.
‘I don’t suppose you’re . . . with anybody now?’
His words seemed grudging, hard to get out; through the very teeth and lips almost. I was flattered by the enquiry. Thoughts of his own happiness had perhaps led to questions of mine, like they would for other normal mortals. Though I had no intention of telling him my real situation. His egregious enquiry was almost making me high, like the diesel fumes filtering in from the lambent street outside. I had been single for so long, women were fast becoming the mystery they had been to me at fifteen. I had come full circle. It was as if the past two decades of relationships, my doomed marriage, were all a forgotten holiday somewhere exotic and slightly frightening – equatorial, with high prices and tough emotional tolls. Absent too was the world of children and family, and the happiness it brought people my age – a party from which I was also sharply excluded.
‘Oh, there are a few people in the frame,’ I lied, hoping to catch the eye of the waiter and order a couple of espressos. ‘But no one special. You know how it is – you get to a certain age . . .’
‘Yes. I remember,’ my father said bleakly, perhaps casting his mind back to the years before his lucky cruise and Imelda, years when me and Matt would find him moping forlornly over his evening repast of salami on rye bread, a stubby cerveza at his side, Wagner on the stereo. All that had been missing was the shotgun. As children of separated parents, both with low emotional temperatures, we had evolved to expect the same of our own relationships. But now I could see there may have been more going on inside my father’s heart than I had previously imagined. I wanted to extend our lunch so we could discuss this, though the imperatives of sunshine and lively noise were drawing us outside. I wanted to arrange a meeting every month to explore the strange areas we never had time to tackle. Even to give him a proper hug before we parted. Now that would be a first.
The waiter was suddenly at my side.
‘Would you like anything else?’
‘The bill please,’ I found myself blurting. ‘And two double espressos.’
And then, once the waiter had disappeared, the shutter came down, as it always did with father.
‘Well. Splendid weather we’ve been having! Though I don’t suppose it will do my lawn any good . . .’
‘Yes,’ I muttered, feeling unexpected warmth for him. There wouldn’t be much point in chatting over coffee now. The last time we had met in the Boswell Street Porchetta, we had ended up in a second-hand bookshop, my father boorishly tipsy, talking in a loud voice about how the title A la Recherche du Temps Perdu actually referred to wasted time, not lost time. I had steered him to the counter, with a volume of Kipling’s short stories for a production of The Jungle Book that was coming up at my theatre. And yet I had felt strange happiness at the visible annoyance of the student behind the counter. I was that callow youth once, I thought. And now, maybe, I was becoming more like my father, year by year.
‘Let’s go Dutch,’ I suggested, trying not to think of the costly Pinot Gris.
‘Yes, let’s!’ my father said enthusiastically.
Above all, I wanted harmony, as I watched the bill coming over, borne aloft on a silver platter holding two thimbles of coffee. What softened our combat was always the spectre at our back that this might prove to be the final time – the last lunch; the last meeting we ever had with each other. Surely we didn’t want to soil it with the bad odour of an argument about climate change and forgotten Tory politicians?
‘Have you got anything else to do in town?’ I asked eventually.
‘Oooh, I might take a wander up to the British Library. Continue with a bit of research.’
In his retirement, he was toying with idea of writing a new life of Edmund Burke, despite shelves of such biographies already in existence. I encouraged him in this, however, it being a vaguely artistic pursuit. It was never too late to start, I advised.
‘Yes, walk off this wine.’
‘I’ll come with you, if you like.’
‘Don’t you have work?’
‘Nope, I have a free day. I cleared the day for this.’
My father looked surprised. ‘Okay, you might take my mind off my every third thought.’
‘Which is what?’ I asked, making to stand up. ‘I’m not sure I know what you mean.’
‘Peter . . .’ he paused, his eyes sparkling. ‘What do I mean? Prospero, of course! Every third thought shall be my grave.’
‘And you a man of the theatre!’
I felt foolish for forgetting the allusion. But he could never miss an opportunity for a literary quote, nor for one-upmanship. His eyes glittered, like the facetted light of a diamond; their sparkling planes alternating with hexagons of darkness.
Then I noticed he was staring at something: my waist. His look was fastened on my suddenly exposed untucked shirt. There was a poised moment when I thought he was going to speak. But he restrained himself. Instead, we both readied ourselves to leave. We dropped a sizable tip, thanked the waiter, then walked out into the gorgeous bath of summer light; the shifting banks of shadow, the pollen-heavy air.
We never believe things are going to become the last things; experiences that will prove our final encounters: a last glimpse of a beloved friend, the last book one reads, the last movie, meal, smile, kiss. But so it proved with my father. He died a year after our last Bloomsbury lunch, of prostate cancer. The pastor at his funeral was my mother’s second husband, John.