Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
The sky wept gently, the soft rain filling his hair and pouring down his face in little rivulets, wetting his collar, and crushing his spirit. It reminded him of another rainy day in Wales, the day twenty years ago that Arthur had died in the Falklands and Steven had experienced his brother helping him from the mountain.
Steven McCann had never felt more desolate, more alone in his entire life. Losing Maria had been worse, a personal hell out of which he knew he could never climb back. But this, this awful knowledge that he was totally alone in the world, pressed down on him. His mother, broken by the indifference of his father, his brother, Arthur, burned to death in a steel ship, and Maria, dying in their car as he watched helplessly. And now, for perhaps the first time since he had been told by the solicitor, his father’s death struck home. He wished he had had children, someone else to share in and fill some of his emptiness.
It was all made worse by the numbers of people who had attended the service. There must have been a hundred, all looking as if they genuinely grieved. They had sympathised with him, these strangers who had known his father so much better than Steven had, these strangers who had seen and valued the man’s worth in a way Steven had not. And they looked at him, these strangers, wondering what kind of a son had never visited his own father. Steven wondered about that also. But they had not known him as Steven had known him. They had not known the man who had so shut himself off from his second son’s death that he had allowed his wife to waste away and die. Steven blamed his father for that and would, could never forgive him, not even in death. He himself had been inadequate to the task of comforting his mother, especially as he was in London and married.
Caterine had stood beside him, saying nothing, her presence a silent comfort in his anguish and embarrassment. She was the only one he had known at the service apart from Phillips, the solicitor. He was struck once again at a strange attraction he felt for this woman, and how attractive she looked, even here, in this dreadful place. Deliberately he tried to distract himself from the funeral service, and thought of the previous evening at dinner, in C’est la Vie. They had talked, my God, how they had talked, and for an hour, perhaps, he had forgotten the grey shrouds hanging over his life. It wasn’t as if he had never tried to shake the past off his shoulders. He had tried, but had never succeeded before. At the same time, his nature, inbred of suspicion after twenty-two years in the Police, kept asking ‘What is she after? What is her angle?’
The vicar’s words droned on, the usual old stuff about life after death and perpetual life thereafter. How did he know all that? Ashes to ashes. God Almighty! And then there was a lowering of the coffin into the open grave as the final rituals were observed. He moved forward, and picked up a small handful of wet soil. “Good bye, Dad. I did love you, you know, you old sod.” He threw the soil on to the coffin causing a little smattering of noise. Much of the wet earth remained on his hand, symbolic, he thought of his father’s influence reaching out and gripping him from beyond the grave. He pulled out a non too clean handkerchief to wipe his hand as the other mourners moved forward to the open grave.
For the first time he began to cry, silently, not for Maria, not for himself, but for the dead man, the father he had never understood, and who had never understood him. The years they had wasted, the years which were now gone for ever, into the grave with the coffin. He cried for the family they had once been, destroyed by Arthur’s death and his father’s reaction to that death. He turned away from the graveside, his tears mixing with and being absorbed by the rain.
As he walked, he was conscious of footsteps behind him, and felt a hand on his arm.
“Steven. Let me make you a coffee.” Caterine was in a black, belted raincoat, with some kind of beret, also black, on her head. She took his hand, the better one, and if she felt the remnants of the gritty earth, she said nothing.
He was too full to say anything, just nodding and mumbling something incoherently. She fell into step beside him and they walked in silence towards the parked cars.
“I need a Scotch,” he said at last. “Would you like to join me?”
She nodded wordlessly. They got into the Peugeot 205 and she turned the key, starting the engine. After just a few seconds she switched it off again and turned to him. “Steven, we must go to the reception in the house. Can you manage that?”
Steven spoke weakly. “OK, I suppose so. We call it a wake, not a reception, by the way. I should leave the whiskey for a little while, is that what you are saying?”
Caterine nodded. “Yes, we will both have one later.”
The wake was endless and endlessly painful. He did not know anyone, anyone at all, apart from Caterine, and despite his simmering anger with her over the funeral arrangements, and his suspicions over her intentions, she was the rock to which he clung through the two-hour agony. Who were these people? They had known a different Professor McCann to the father barely known and even less recognised by his son. Steven McCann was deeply ashamed of himself.
Finally, the last of the mourners departed and he was left alone with a small Frenchwoman whom he had known for only two days.
“Whiskey.” It was a statement than a question.
“Please,” he said tiredly. “I suppose you know where it is?”
“Oui. I think I can find it.”
She returned with two glasses. “Glenlivet is OK for you?”
They sat down and Steven closed his eyes but found no comfort there. “Caterine. Thank you.”
“For making all the arrangements, for getting me through it, for everything. Mostly just for being here.”
“He was your father, Steven. He was not only my boss but my friend, and my friend at a time I needed a friend.”
“Did you see their eyes?”
“All those people. They were thinking just what kind of a callous bastard I am. And they’re right.”
“We all live our lives as we go along, sometimes making decisions from day to day, and sometimes we are right.”
“And sometimes wrong,” he added.
They sat in silence for several minutes, Steven with his eyes closed, the whiskey held in his right hand.
“Would you like to see the house? Your house?”
He returned to the present. “No, I don’t think so. I’m not up to it just at this moment. Perhaps tomorrow.”
“Can I give you a lift back to the Black Bull. Or one tomorrow?”
He shook his head. “Thanks, no. I’ll walk.”
“It’s still raining. Will you take an umbrella?”
They agreed on noon the following day and he trudged away up the hill.
As it happened, she was waiting for him at the pub and he was pleased to see her.
“It is a nice day, m’sieur, I thought I would have a little walk.”
“I am delighted that you did.” And he was delighted, while at the same time trying to push away the little nagging doubts which kept entering his head. What was her angle? What did she want? He felt much better and was mentally prepared to see his family home again. He didn’t count the wake.
“Do you want me to leave you alone to look round?”
He stopped her. “No, I would truly appreciate it if you would help.”
She smiled and for the first time he noticed the tiredness in her face, especially in her eyes. Selfish bastard that he was, he had not realised the strain she must have been under. She had known the dead man better than he had, and she, an unrelated French woman, had made all the funeral arrangements while the dead man’s son had been awash in a sea of pills and booze.
“And after the house?” She left the question unfinished.
He ignored her question. “Where did he live at University?”
“He had quarters there. It will be necessary to look there too, I think. There was a lot of his own stuff there.”
“I have to go back to London, for a few days, to sort out a few things. I was going to stay on here tonight, but I don’t think I will now. I will check out later. Then I will come back, in a few days. I don’t know what to do with all his books and writings and so on.”
“We can look together. I know what he was doing and what was important.”
Steven suddenly thought of Caterine’s position. “Were you paid by Dad?”
She shook her head. “No, by the University of Wales. I will be paid until June and then I have paid vacances. What do you say, holidays?”
He nodded. “Yes, holidays. What will you do after that?”
She shrugged her Gallic shrug, and spread her hands. “I do not know. I will wait and see. As your Dad would have said, ‘something will turn up’.”
Steven nodded. “He did say that. Mostly something did turn up.”
“Do you have to be back on duty, Steven?”
He stared at her. “No. I am suspended. I am being investigated, and I am suspended on full pay.”
It was her turn to stare, her eyes wide. “Did you kill someone?”
He gave a sardonic little half laugh, half sneer. “No, much worse. They say that I called a crack dealer a ‘something bastard’, just before I hit him, but just after he bit my left hand. God knows what I called him, but I certainly broke his bloody jaw. In three places apparently. Please don’t ask, I will explain one day.”
As they neared the house he said, “I understand I am also the owner of a cat. Mr Tigger, apparently.”
She gave a little laugh. “People do not own cats, whatever you may think. Cats own themselves. He is a very friendly animal.”
“I have heard that.”
They walked down to the riverside and into the long driveway leading to the house. It looked sad, forlorn and melancholy. Worse, it looked reproachfully at him. As they got to the door he said, half to himself. “It isn’t my fault, you know.”
Caterine heard, but misunderstood. “No one thinks it was your fault Steven. He was nearly eighty, you know.”
He looked at her, not comprehending. “I was talking to the house.” Here, at his father’s home, the weight of his neglect pressed down on him. He hoped he wouldn’t cry. It wasn’t far away.
She looked at him strangely. “Let’s go in.”
The garden was unkempt and overgrown, with the same neglected appearance that blighted the outside of the house. He was prepared to find the interior in a similar dilapidated state, but he was wrong. The hallway was clean, and even the piles of books, on the floor, on tables, chairs, and on shelves on the wall had some signs of an ordered hand on them. He guessed that this was Caterine’s work, as he did not believe that his father would have been capable of noticing the shambles let alone correcting it. He had been too overcome by emotion to have noticed any of this on the previous day. He expected that the house would smell of books, damp, and fusty, as one or two of the shops in town had been. It didn’t. Instead, there was a homely feeling, as if someone had been baking bread. He dismissed the thought; no one baked bread these days.
She showed him around, a strange action, this girl whom he had met only two or three days earlier, acting as a guide to his own house, which he had known since he was fifteen.
“This is my room.” She opened the door shyly, and just as shyly, aware he was intruding, he glanced inside. It had been Arthur’s room. It was light and airy, with a new dressing table and wardrobe, and a fine watercolour above the neat bed.
“Where’s the painting?”
She smiled. “It’s La Rochelle.” She added unnecessarily, “That’s in France.”
He smiled a little. “Yes, I know. Is that where you come from, La Rochelle?”
“A little north of there. I was born in La Vendée, but I lived in Royan, when I was, when I was in France. Do you know it?”
Steven shook his head. “I’m sorry, I’m afraid not.”
They moved away from the room, and as she closed the door, she turned quickly, almost colliding with him. “I wasn’t sleeping with him, you know, with your father.”
“I never thought that you might have been.” Unreasonably, he was pleased.
“I’m not sleeping with anyone, and I don’t want to.”
He was a little shocked by the vehemence in her voice.
He stepped back a little. “It’s OK, neither am I, nor do I want to.” What in the name of Christ was the message here? Whatever it was, he didn’t understand it. Best not to even try to understand women.
She turned hurriedly, seemingly embarrassed. It was the first time she had ever lost her cool. He quite liked it.
She showed him the main bedroom, a shambolic rat’s nest of books and papers. He closed the door quickly.
“I will show you your father’s office.”
He followed her to what had once been the dining room. It was heavy with books, papers and magazines, poking, it seemed from just about every spare space or corner. Ahead of him, alongside the French windows which overlooked the garden, was a black desk, which curled around the corner of the room and high shelving climbed into the ceiling. The desk was occupied by a computer monitor in the corner, with its matching hard drive and modem underneath. To the left of the desk sat a printer, and in the centre, close to the window, was an ashtray, with a pipe on lonely watch.
He picked up the pipe, and opened the tobacco pouch lying alongside. There was a little slice of apple, now almost dried out. He had forgotten that his father had done that. He sniffed the tobacco and the fragrance brought back long dead memories of times in the house, with Arthur and Mum and Dad. He shook his head slightly and returned both pipe and pouch. Caterine gently took the piece of dried apple from him.
“He still smoked, then?”
“Yes, he loved his pipe.” She said it as ‘peep’, and then corrected herself. “No, his pipe”
Steven smiled. “We all always told him it would kill him.”
Caterine nodded sadly. “So did I, but it was his heart which gave up. He always said he had had a good innings. That’s a cricket thing, is it?”
He agreed. “Yes, that’s a cricket thing.” He indicated the computer. “I suppose that you know your way around this thing pretty well, do you?”
She nodded eagerly. “Yes, I am very familiar with it. Would you like me to show you?”
Something within him still rankled from her earlier remarks. “No, not now.” He noticed how disappointed she seemed. “But soon, very soon. OK?” He glanced again at the room, and on a shelf to his left he saw a photograph frame, one of those created as a montage of images. He reached for it and took it down. They were all there. His mother and father, at the beach somewhere, in a different time in a different world, smiled at him. No, his mother was actually smiling at her husband. Funny, Steven had never noticed that before. She must have loved the old bastard at one time. And here was Steven, looking very proud in his police sergeant’s uniform, the white chevrons gleaming. Maria was there with her father in law. The old man had always liked her. And there was Arthur in his Welsh Guards uniform. Everyone dead now, except me, he thought, and I‘ve had a fair crack at it.
He put the photo frame back on the shelf. “There was a third bedroom?”
“A third bedroom? You must mean the library.”
“I suppose I must.”
Any evidence that it had once been a bedroom had long since disappeared. It was a library, fully paid up.
“This used to be mine.” He walked to the window and pulled back the nets. “Look, you can just see the river from here.”
She moved close to him to get a better view. “Oh, yes. I had never noticed that before.” She turned to face him as she spoke, her breasts brushing his chest, her face inches from his.
He had not been near any woman for the last two years, and her closeness disturbed him. He thought that he would like to kiss her. Instead he said, “Sorry” and moved away.
Caterine made some coffee.
“I will have to go soon. I must be back in London for tomorrow. I was going to leave early tomorrow morning, but I think it would be best to go this afternoon. I have a meeting I must be at.”
She said nothing.
He continued, awkwardly. “Please stay here as long as you like. I will try to get back by the weekend, and sort out.” His voice trailed away, with sentence unfinished, as they both surveyed the literary mountains around them. “What am I going to do with all this?”
She touched his hand, the good one. “I will help you.” Her earlier protests appeared behind her. She was a very tactile person and he was uncertain whether he liked it or not. Some people were, especially women, and some were not, usually men.
“That will make me come back.” He smiled at her small earnest face, screwed up in anxiety.
Late in the afternoon he retraced his journey, leaving Hay in a grey daylight, struggling once more through the roadworks, where again no one appeared to be working. He drove automatically, his body in the car, heading south and east, his mind still back in the melancholy house. Steven could not explain it, but he was disturbed, uneasy, but over what, it was impossible to identify. He again had the feeling that his life was being pulled in a direction over which he had no control. As that life had not been going in any particular direction anyway, it probably didn’t matter.
His father was dead, but he had been almost eighty, and had had heart trouble for several years. He truly had had ‘a good innings’. Steven more than ever regretted bitterly that both he and his father had allowed their stupid rift to develop to the stage where their differences had become an unbridgeable abyss. No, it wasn’t that. Perhaps it was the girl. She was attractive and somehow a little exotic, although France was scarcely on the moon. She had a disturbing quality about her. He did not feel either romantically or sexually attracted to her; Maria was still too warm, if a fading presence, in his bed for that. He felt as if he was being drawn into something against his will. A strange, floating sense of foreboding gnawed at his mind. He wondered if the hospital or the Police had traced the missing patient from Kingston General Hospital. He shuddered at the memory of his juvenile attempt at suicide, and again drove it from his mind.
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