Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
The weather outside the car was as black and thunderous as his mood. It was still only the middle of the afternoon, but the dark clouds gathered over the low Welsh hills, threatening, like an army poised ready to attack. It reminded him of that day way back in 1982, on Snowdon. Funny, but he hadn’t thought of it for years, and now it was back with him, intruding into his mind. It couldn’t have really happened, of course, Arthur was dead over eight thousand miles away, but Steven had felt his brother’s arms around him, and had smelt his aftershave. Or had it all been a figment of a brain shaken in the fall? Perhaps he was mad, perhaps he had always been mad.
The first raindrops plopped softly against the windscreen, bursting like over ripe fruit against the glass, the expendable skirmishers, the foot soldiers of the vast host waiting to the west. The windscreen wipers swished fussily, irritating him even more, and causing him to drum his fingers uselessly on the steering wheel.
None of the cars was going anywhere fast, held up by traffic lights dimly glimpsed on the road ahead of him. On his left he passed a red, white and black sign, depicting a man digging, and the message, ‘250 yards’. That at least was something. The rain burst upon the line of vehicles, causing the wipers to change from fussy to furious, and the drivers waited with varying degrees of patience for their turn at the lights. His hands tightened around the steering wheel. He supposed that he had had to come. A man should attend his own father’s funeral, but, by Christ, Steven did not want to be here.
“Damm you, Dad, damm you! Why did you have to go and die just now?” He spoke out loud, his voice reflecting his pain and his guilt. At least his father would no longer have to worry about the perpetual Welsh rain. His father’s death had come out of the blue, as shocking as it was unexpected and ill timed. But he reflected all deaths are ill timed for someone, usually the person who had died. It had nearly applied to himself. He had tried very hard not to think about that painful episode. It had all been a mistake, something which had happened when he was drunk, and because of his drunkenness. The thought did linger that not only was Steven McCann a weak man, but also a failure who couldn’t even top himself. He pushed such thoughts away, but he knew that one day, one day soon, he would need to face up to it. He, Steven McCann had tried to kill himself.
“I will, I will, “ he said out loud, but he knew he could not do it now.
As the rain increased in tempo, the traffic eased by the roadworks and passed a broken-down tractor on the other side of the traffic lights, adding to the general mayhem. The farmer, if such he was, in his cab on the tractor, smiled in an apologetic way, and raised an equally apologetic hand as the other drivers slithered past him.
“Bloody good place to break down, mate,” Steven muttered to himself.
He glimpsed a road sign through the driving rain. Hay on Wye 15 miles. At least that was not too bad. He should make it in twenty or twenty-five minutes, provided there were no more Welsh idiots with defective tractors. A few minutes later he saw another sign, welcoming him to Wales, and he realised that the much-cursed man on the tractor had probably been an English idiot. He offered a silent apology to the Welsh.
Hay was a straggling sort of town, and as he hadn’t been here for over five years he was immediately and predictably lost. He spent some time looking for the ‘Black Bull’, a task not made easier by the rain, so heavy it was like driving in a river. When he did find the inn, he also found that he was going the wrong direction in a one-way street and had to spend more time retracing his route. Eventually he pulled into the car park at the rear of the pub. It was still raining, although not so heavily, and he grabbed his small suitcase from the back seat and dashed into the hotel Reception.
A young woman looked up from doing some accounts on the counter, as he shook the rain from his jacket. “Good afternoon, sir. A bit wet outside, is it?”
It was not the brightest or most perceptive remark he had ever heard, he thought sourly, but he let it go. There was no point in upsetting the locals. “Yes, afraid so. It’s cats and dogs out there.” The rain dripped from his clothing to form little pools on the carpet.
“Can I help you?” She smiled in a friendly way and had a not unpleasant face. He thought how much more attractive even ordinary women were when they smiled. They should practice it more often. His thoughts were still sour, and he resolved to stop it.
“I have a room booked for four nights.” He tried what he hoped was a friendly smile but felt that he had probably failed.
“McCann. Steven McCann.”
“Oh, yes, Mr McCann. We’re expecting you. Can you fill in this form for me please? Your name, address, car registration, and signature.”
He did as she asked. “I don’t know the car number, it’s a hire car.”
She smiled benevolently at him, as one might smile at a not very bright child. “It will be on the key ring, I expect. The one in your hand.”
“Sorry.” He pushed the paper across to her, along with his Visa card which she returned with a gesture which said, ‘Oh, no, we don’t need those things yet, not here.’
“Are you here on business, Mr McCann?”
“Yes, well, no. I’m here to attend a funeral.”
The girl frowned. “McCann? Yes. Are you related to Professor McCann?”
“He was my father. Did you know him?”
She nodded. “Yes, he was a sweet old man. Lived in that big rambling house out by the river. I didn’t know he had a family.”
“No, neither did he”
If she recognised any irony in his reply, she decided to ignore it. She gave him the room key. “There you go, number six. It’s on your left, and then on the first floor. Watch out for the beam on the stairs. It’s a bit low.” She smiled again, lighting up her face. “If there is anything you need, please ask.”
“Well, as you mention it, I have just driven from London, and could really use a drink. Do you think that is possible?”
She smiled. “No problem. In your room or at the bar?”
“In the bar, please. A Scotch.”
“A Grouse, perhaps?”
He shuddered inwardly, remembering that awful night. He couldn’t imagine that he would ever drink Famous Grouse again in his life. “No, a malt, please. A Glenmorangie, a double, no water, just some ice, if you have that.”
“Yes, I’m sure I can arrange that. Please take a seat. You’ll find the place is pretty empty at his time of day. Anyway, you are related to the Professor, and that’s good enough for me.”
He left his case in Reception and went into the bar. A fire burned in the fireplace, filling his nostrils with the pleasant, dimly remembered smell of wood smoke. His childhood drifted across his consciousness, with memories of his mother and father, and younger brother Arthur, and holidays in the Welsh hills. Two elderly men stared at him from across the public bar, beer glasses poised halfway to their lips.
“Afternoon, gentlemen. Nasty day out there.”
They mumbled something he could not catch, so he nodded again and sat down by the fire. The girl was busying herself fixing his whiskey, and he glanced around the room. It was exactly how a foreigner would expect an English pub to be. The ceiling was low, blackened by years of smoke from the wood fire and countless pipes, with sturdy oak beams stretching its entire length. The windows were small, with lead light glass, and were recessed with little window seats. He then remembered it was a Welsh pub, not an English one, even if it was only three or four miles from the border. Above the fireplace he saw a framed print, which he recognised, as that of the British square at Quatre Bras, painted by a Scots woman. What was her name? Lady something or other. He rather fancied it was a Lady Butler.
He studied the painting, with its stunningly accurate depiction of the British faces of the young Redcoats. The faces looked very much how Arthur and his mates would have looked on that dreadful day in 1982 at Bluff Cove. On the opposite wall was another familiar painting, the Charge of the Union Brigade at Waterloo. Was that by the same woman? He believed that it was. He got up and went to study it. The painter had not been at Waterloo, he knew that, but had done a fine job of depicting the horses, with their flared nostrils and staring eyes. Steven supposed that the horses probably would have looked just like that if they had been charging the French. He reflected that the French wouldn’t have looked so clever themselves, with tons of grey horses charging at them.
The girl came from behind the bar, carrying his drink. “Here you are, sir.”
“Thanks.” He smiled. “What’s your name?”
“Holly. Holly Barlow.”
“Thanks again, Holly. What’s the military connection here?” He indicated the two prints.
“Well, I don’t suppose you have ever heard of him, but Sir Thomas Picton owned a house in the village and stayed here sometimes. Even drank in this pub, they say.”
“Well, old Sir Thomas, fancy that.”
“You know of him, do you?” She seemed surprised, but pleased.
“Oh, yes. Tough old bugger he was. Killed at Waterloo, and a Welshman, of course. I read somewhere that he was the only Welshman ever buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.”
She gurgled a little laugh. “Well they all want to be buried at the Millennium Stadium now.”
He also laughed. “Well they always seem to get buried there when England play them, and at Twickenham as well. Oh, sorry!”
She laughed again, a pleasing little noise. “Nothing to do with me, I’m English. About half the town is, you know. Probably all to do with the book shops. People were attracted to Hay from all parts of Britain.”
Holly was obviously the talkative type, because she leaned forward in a confidential way, and added, “And of course we have the Headquarters of the Royal Regiment of Wales, just down the road at Brecon. They were the ones who won eleven VC’s at Rorkes Drift, you know, although they were called the 24th Foot at the time. There’s a museum there, and many of the VC’s are on display. Are you interested in military things?”
Steven McCann was thoughtful. “I am a bit. My brother served with a Welsh regiment.”
“Oh, what’s he doing now?”
“I’m afraid that he was killed in the Falklands.”
She reddened. “Oh, I am sorry. I didn’t know. Professor McCann never mentioned that.”
“No, he never would. Didn’t like to discuss it.”
He sat by the fire, sipping his Scotch, tangy on his tongue, and allowing the woodsmoke to drift over him. He studied the low-ceilinged room, with its reminders of a long dead battle. No paintings of the Falklands, he observed bitterly to himself. His father might have sat in this room, maybe even in this chair, drinking his beer and exchanging his opinions with the locals. He couldn’t imagine that the old man would have had much in common with any of them, apart from books. Hay on Wye had more second-hand bookshops than just about anywhere in Britain, and his Dad had loved books. Probably loved books more than people. He had certainly seemed to love books a damm sight more than he had loved his wife or his elder son.
The last few years had been difficult, and not all Dad’s fault, he thought, but then the perverse old bugger had gone and died, just when his son believed it was time to sort things out between them and at least start talking again. Well, at least that what his son had been thinking before the events of the previous week. “You old sod, I wanted to say things to you.” Steven McCann realised that most of all he had wanted to tell his father that, despite their many differences, despite everything, he loved him, and that he needed the old man to love him in return. He was his father’s son after all. Now, it was too late.
Holly came back, standing with her back to the fire, the colour of her hair turned red by the flames. “Another drink, Mr McCann?”
His mind went back again to his demolition of the bottle of Grouse, and he shook his head. “No, thanks, I will have a lay down for a couple of hours and then have a shower. The room has a shower?”
His question caused her to smile. “You’re only in Wales, you know, not Ulan Bator. We do have showers, and hot water.”
He put up his hands, palms outwards in a gesture of apology and surrender. “Sorry, I didn’t mean that the way it must have sounded.”
“I’m sorry too, I was only joking.”
He rose, heavily, realising that he was suddenly very tired. Since last week it was a feeling he had had frequently.
“Will you be dining with us tonight?” Holly enquired; her eyebrows raised.
“I suppose so. Do I have to get dressed up?”
She smiled and shook her head. “No, you will be just fine as you are. What time would you like to eat?”
“About seven thirty, if that is all right?”
“That will be fine. I’ll inform chef. Oh, by the way, there is a message for you.” She handed him a small envelope.
Steven looked up. “Who’s this from?”
Holly shook her head again. “I don’t know. It arrived before I came on duty.”
He turned the small envelope over and studied it before tearing it open. There was nothing written on it apart from his name: Mr S. W. McCann. Whoever had written it at least knew something about him; few people used the second initial, least of all himself. The note inside was simple:
“Mr McCann. I will call and see you this evening at eight. If this is not convenient, please telephone me on 321643. C. Bertrand.”
Who was he, or was it she? The phone call from his father’s solicitor had been from a man, called, what was it? Roderick Phillips, yes that was the name. Perhaps the writer of this cryptic little note worked for him. He studied the message again, and saw that the writing was neat and precise, and somehow vaguely academic. He supposed that he could phone and find out, but he was too tired, and anyway, he could use a little mystery in his life. He went into Reception and picked up his suitcase.
“Holly, please inform chef that I will have dinner at eight-thirty, not seven thirty, and make it for two. I have a visitor who may wish to eat.”
She looked up. “You have a guest. That’s nice. Male or female?”
“Haven’t a clue, could be a Martian for all I know.”
“Oh I hope not. We are completely out of Martian food.” She smiled at him. “Enjoy your rest. I’ll see you later this evening.”
He climbed the half dozen stairs wearily, avoided the low beam, and found his room. It was small, but warm and seemed comfortable. He dropped the suitcase on the floor and flung his jacket over a chair. As he pulled the curtains, he noticed that the rain was still sweeping across the bleak car park, and the short winter’s day was drawing in. He was tired. It was not the tiredness caused by a day’s work, or a round of golf, but a deeper tiredness. It had seeped into his bones and his blood, into his soul in these last two dreadful years, wearying him emotionally, and ageing him physically. Last week had almost provided the final straw. He removed his clothes and dropped them, unfolded, on a second chair. The bed beckoned, and it was soft and welcoming. Wearing only his shirt and underpants he flopped down, the Daily Telegraph in his hand. Within minutes he was asleep, the newspaper unread across his chest.
The car was coming towards them from the left. He could see the driver, looking in the opposite direction. “Look this way, you mad bastard,” he heard himself shout. Beside him he could feel Maria stiffen, and from the corner of his eye, saw her hand go to her mouth, as he wrenched the steering wheel to the right. It was too late, the other car ploughed into them pushing the Renault across the narrow road. The hedge on his right was not an obstacle, and he felt the steering wheel go slack in his hands as they toppled over the embankment. The crack of the air bags was in his ears; there was blood in his mouth and the car was rolling over and over. It finally came to a grinding halt, and for a few seconds there was total silence. He realised that he was upside down, and his head was pressed against the roof.
Then he could smell burning and hear the crackle of flames. He tore at his seat belt and somehow forced his door open, crawling through the gap where it was jammed against the earth. He tried to push back into Maria, but was unable to release her seat belt which was on the far side of the car. In panic and desperation, he stumbled around to the passenger side of the Renault, as the flames began spitting and curling around the engine compartment. He tore at the door, attempting to pull her free, but this door was also jammed into the earth. Maria’s hands reached out to him, her face imploring, even as the fire began to lick around her arms and face. He beat at the glass with his hands, and heaved once more at the door, dragging it halfway open. He reached into the car, released the belt, and desperately pulled at Maria. Then came the second explosion and unconsciousness.
There were people around him, shouting, dragging him away from the blazing car. They held him there, struggling violently but in vain, two or three men, his arms pinned to his sides, tears streaming down his face, his voice screaming, even though he could not hear a word.
And then the bus was coming towards him, very slowly, as in slow motion, and also in slow motion, he stepped off the pavement into its path. In that instant, as the bus was just about to strike him, he looked up and saw that the driver was his father.
Steven woke, his screams choking in his throat, the image of his wife, begging him to help her, even as the fire began eating at her skin and flesh. He was bathed in sweat, his body shaking, his head thumping. He began to cry, huge sobbing gasps that rocked him.
This dammed dream. It never left him, it never would leave him. It destroyed his nights and haunted his waking hours. “Maria, Maria, I’m sorry. I tried, honest to God, I tried.” He stopped crying with difficulty and sat on the edge of the bed looking at his hands, the left one scarred with the fingers twisted and bent, and the right an ugly slash of red, still almost raw. He looked at his watch. He had been asleep for less than half an hour.
He rose slowly, removed the rest of his clothes and went into the shower, turning the water on full. He started crying again, and this time he just let the tears run.
Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – Brian Matier
I inherited all of my fathers stories, tales, manuscripts and self-published manuscripts and have chosen to share them with my readership.
© Rory Matier 2019