بقلم: مايكل توماس
ترجمة: ميّ العيسى
بينما يتهيأ پول هولموود لاستقبال زوجته (پام) في محطة برمنغهام بعد عودتها من زيارة صديقتها في فرنسا تخبره ابنته الوسطى ربيكّا بأنّ والدتها قد غيرت مسار عودتها بعد أن قابلت أصدقائها المتزوجين اللذين لم ترهما منذ فترة طويلة في بيت صديقتها. يصرا أن تذهب معهما الى بيتهما في سواناج في الساحل الجنوبي وبتبديل المسار عليهم أن يقضوا الليلة في إحدى فنادق مدينة ووركشير بعد توقفهم في مطار مانتشستر ليقابلهم پول وابنته على العشاء هناك ليجتمع على المائدة كذلك ابنتهما الكبرى غْوَندولين وهي مديرة مدرسة ابتدائية بالإضافة إلى جيلي ابنتهما الصغرى التي كانت قد تعرضت لحادث سيارة قبل عدة سنوات أثرت عليها وجعلتها من ذوي الاحتياجات الخاصة. أمّا بالنسبة للزوجين اللذين ظهرا مجدداً فالزوجة كارولين طبقة واجتماعية أمّا زوجها جيمس ففي معزل عنهم ومتحفظ مما يجعل پول متحذراً بتصرفاته. ينفتح موضوع حادثة جيلي مما يؤثر على پام التي تتناوب الغضب والدمع. يعي پول، في تلك اللحظة، كم ابتعد عن مشاعر زوجته وبالتأكيد عن جيلي. وإنْ تُعاد للجلسة روح المرح، تبقى الغصة مع پول طوال طريق عودته وحيداً إلى بيته مفكراً في حل أوليّ وهو أن يأخذ ابنته جيلي في سفرة ليعيد العلاقة مع ابنته كما كانت.
‘Dad, we’ll be late.’
Phil Holmwood came to the head of the stairs and looked down at his middle daughter. He saw her place one hand on her hip and clutch the top of the bannister post with the other. It looked as though she’d been rehearsing various attitudes of reproach and, just too late, chosen that.
‘I’m nearly ready,’ he said, not adding, ‘For what?’
It had been quite straightforward. He’d drive to Birmingham International for the Euston train. Having heard nothing, he’d assumed that his wife’s Eurostar had got in on time and the connection was fine. An hour before leaving, though, he saw a figure loom at the front door, one that the patterned glass could not break up. Rebecca. She’d blown in already speaking. No Eurostar for Mum. No faffing at Euston. Pam’s visit to an old friend in Normandy, Phil learned, had been one big surprise. Already there were a couple she and the friend had known while studying: a varsity romance, marriage in the second year. She’d lost touch with them but the friend hadn’t. And apart from that, said Rebecca (her all-weather phrase), the couple were returning on the same day as Mum. So…Eurostar forgotten, online search, Pam booked on their flight to Manchester, their car waiting, a swift call to Buffery Manor just outside Alcester where they were staying on their way back to Swanage, a room for Pam, table for seven that evening – and apart from that, Pam heading off with them tomorrow morning, their special guest at Swanage for, ooh, however long she liked.
‘What about Gilly?’ Phil had asked, glad of a bannister post himself by that point. ‘Are we meant – ?’
‘Nelly Dean’s seeing to her.’ The relish with which Rebecca abused the name of her older sister Gwendolen was, like her catch-phrase, undimmed.
‘Dad, come on,’ she called up now and Phil, descending the stairs, wondering if he looked all right but knowing he’d soon be told if not, thought glumly of that programme which, in original circumstances, he’d have been back for. ‘We’re not having one of those Smart TVs’, sounded Pam in his head. ‘Any of those catch-up thingies and you’d be living in it.’
‘Is your tie supposed to look like that?’ Phil shifted uncomfortably under his daughter’s fashionista gaze. Mercifully, she didn’t comment on anything else. They hardly spoke on the way to Alcester. She’d delivered the news and, from long experience, Phil knew that his part was as some nameless lord in Shakespeare: a nod, a hmm, a ‘Say you so?’
Retirement: his pending – just part-time now – Pam’s early and glorious. Always off, she was. The friends she had. The new friends she made. Arrangements changed on the hoof. Sometimes their annual holiday was grafted awkwardly onto her jaunts, usually meaning that he had to come back on his own. This Swanage thing wasn’t unusual: believable but with a ring of desperate invention, as of a rooky playwright trying to finish Act Three with an hour before curtain up. He’d once assumed that, once he was done working, she’d invite him to join her on the wing. Now he suspected she wouldn’t. He’d have to go mad-capping on his own, bumping into her, so to speak, only for the occasional long-calendared holiday. ‘The garden needs sorting,’ Pam had said more than once. ‘Not to mention the attic.’ Thus was the last phase of his strutting and fretting defined. Or not, he thought as they neared Alcester. He had nothing in mind and for sure he wasn’t one of nature’s madcaps. Still…
Far too bright. Several times Phil looked up at the faux-chandelier above the table and was mightily glad when the restaurant was dimmed just before their starters came.
Caroline and Jim. And James. From the start of the evening, from the handshakes and mwah-mwahs and drinks in the bar, he’d quietly scrupled to add ‘it’s James’ when anyone became as informal as the occasion seemed to merit. Phil felt as though, rather than actually eating his dinner, he was being interviewed on his fitness for same. James had been a financial advisor on the south coast, capricious stocks and that. Something in the suburbs, thought Phil. Their garden was attended to by a local treasure. Their attic was James’ den in the sky. Swanage, thought Phil. He’d heard jokes about it. No doubt there was a young lady from there.
But the wife said ‘Just Carol’s fine’ and asked everyone all about themselves in a way that was jolly rather than intrusive. Court clerk had been her line. The tales she could tell – and did, a few, in a way that nicely balanced openness with the time-honoured disclaimer at the start of novels: any resemblance, living or dead, quite coincidental. Phil liked her. He wondered if he’d met them before, way back, but there’d been no chance to check with Pam and neither she nor they mentioned it, Carol because she was happy to be in the moment, James because he was James.
Phil looked across the table at his eldest, quietly smiling, showing interest in all she heard. Gwendolen’s birth had soon put paid to any hankering he’d had for a son. From an early age she’d been his … no, not ally…more his rapporteur in the world of children. Yes, at times she’d grizzled as a girl, rolled eyes as a teenager. Underneath, however, there’d been wisdom, forbearance, especially where her mother was concerned. She’d take some unjustified telling in a way that somehow left Pam on the wrong foot, illustrated Wilde’s dictum that you should forgive your enemies as nothing annoyed them so much. She must have done some fancy dancing, Phil thought, to get there this evening with Gilly. Perhaps she’d have a late-nighter afterwards on the laptop: a primary school didn’t run itself. Perhaps her Rob had been due to go out but was suddenly in charge of their two. He wouldn’t have demurred. As soon as they’d met him, as soon as he’d said his first charming words to Pam, Phil knew that here was another polite wrong-footer.
‘Are you okay there, love?’ said Carol, leaning to the head of the table, and Gilly smiled and said yes. They were better about all that these days, thought Phil, hotels and such. Plenty of clearance between them and the adjacent tables and hardly anyone gave the wheelchair a second look. A stunner, their youngest had been, which, looking back, was probably the only thing that drew that clown to her. Vanished clown now, thankfully. Motor-mouth Alex. Big talk, bright horizons, but underneath, well, Andy Capp was quite outclassed. After Gilly’s accident, though, the cat got his tongue. ‘I’ve tried to love her,’ he’d insisted, barging into the house that time, getting in first before the rumblings of divorce. ‘I’ve done all I can…it’s so not easy…she can’t help it, I know and…but I’ll always love her.’
‘Wonder if she could have helped it,’ Pam had murmured sometime later. ‘Five goes it took her, the test. I mean, Philip, was she really watching the road?’ He’d exploded at her as he’d never done before or since. Perhaps, he wondered now, she lived life on the wing because she was never quite sure that it wouldn’t happen again. People you met hither and yon, winging like you, they were safe. Mild disagreements over the wine-list: that was probably as fractious as it got. But Gilly was doing just fine, a respected copy-editor, nicely settled in her adapted house, paying her way, going on holidays but sweetly steering the talk elsewhere if Phil suggested she might like one with mum and dad. ‘He’s a catch, that Alex,’ Pam had said, often. Like her big sister, Gilly knew her mother.
‘But apart from that we were late as it was so there was nothing I could do about his tie,’ Rebecca had a special gurgle to go with her boom-boom remarks. It sort of spilled out of the final word – as now, when Phil found all eyes upon him.
‘One of my clients,’ said James, ‘was just the same. Chain-store chappie, sports and leisure. Fairish taste but could never match the tie. One had South Sea girlies all over it.’
‘You must have had a good look,’ said Gwendolen, at which Carol laughed, James didn’t and Pam said ‘’Scuse me, Gwendolen’ in a chill rush. She’d never called her Gwen. Gilly gave her father a smile, almost nothing but warmer than Pam’s at her Christmas best. Rebecca, determined that the topic should remain her party, reached over and tugged Phil’s tie: ‘Silly old bit of rag, eh, dad?’ she said in a brittle voice.
‘No more need of ‘em once you’ve hung up the working boots,’ Carol twinkled, laying a hand on his arm. ‘You’ll have a ball, promise.’
‘Will he?’ The table fell silent. Everyone watched Pam as she drew herself up. ‘Will he now?’ She turned to Phil. ‘A ball with the garden and the attic, my lad, and all your old tat to dispatch. That’ll see you out and then some.’
‘Mum.’ Gilly edged herself forward in her chair.
Pam stared into her eyes as if attempting hypnosis: ‘And when does he ever visit you, my lady? Hey?’
‘Mum, he sometimes – ’
‘There was never any sometimes when I was on at him. Take her out, I said, get her comfortable behind the wheel, smooth the way for the lessons.’
‘He offered, mum. I was the one who –’
‘Well if he’d ignored you and gone ahead and done it then maybe…and maybe you and Alex – ’
‘Mum.’ Gwendolen now, quiet, firm, the head teacher curbing a loose-limbed child.
‘Shush, you, Nelly Dean,’ Rebecca hissed at her. ‘You and your granny name.’
‘Rebecca that’s enough.’ Suddenly all eyes were back on him and he was in shock. Out of nowhere he’d sounded as he had when working up to that explosion at Pam. Gilly eased back slowly in her chair and stared at a point beyond the table. But there was no further need for shushing. Whatever it was, the enormity of what Pam was about to say overtook her. She sank back, confusion in her eyes. What had she been at? Showing real grief at last? Confessing the toll of a bottle of wine? Courting another explosion to underscore how the coming years would play out, two paths, his ‘n’ hers, east and west? Any or all, Phil thought. After another silence, during which James harried a mushroom round his plate, he asked Carol if Swanage was still a tourist pull.
‘Can’t move for them,’ she said. ‘Have to fight my way to the front door. Not.’ She and he laughed together. Gwendolen mentioned a holiday there when she and Rob were first going out. The evening steadied itself.
Another surprise: the Buffery had a cancellation: ‘I’d brought some things on the off-chance,’ said Rebecca; then, parrying the offer of a lift next day, ‘I’ll train it. Pick up my car from –’ She indicated Phil with a twist of the thumb.
Bonhomie was mustered for the goodbyes. Phil waited in the car park, waved to Gwendolen and Gilly, then set off. Hanbury, Droitwich, the Worcester road. However it looked, he thought, he hadn’t come up smelling like a rose so he shouldn’t think it. Anything for a quiet life was all very well but the interest on it could sting your eyes. Had he pushed Pam away and not cared? Rebecca too? Did Gwen and Gilly love him in spite of himself? He considered his upcoming freedom and Carol’s twinkle: ‘You’ll have a ball, promise.’ As he turned for the Worcester road he saw himself online, checking suitable hotels, booking rooms for two. This time he wouldn’t fade away. This time he’d insist. And he pictured Gilly’s almost-nothing smile.