Tuesday 20th December

Something went well for Lady Bracknell’s daughter? (4)

There is an eerie silence to the Botley Rd. The floods have meant that this and various other local roads are closed to traffic so the usual drone of commuting cars and buses is pleasingly missing. At least the rain has stopped and there are some signs that the water-level is levelling off. One or two cyclists carry on regardless, the spray flying from their spokes. But most of the local folk trudge around in a variety of colourful wellies and waterproofs. The odd one even says “good morning”.  It’s not quite the spirit of the Blitz but it lifts the spirits a little.

After an extremely soggy trip to the pseudonymous Jobcentre in George St, I am tipping the water out of my wellies, drying my feet and hunting vainly for a pair of clean, dry socks and some trousers. It seems clear that my father has nabbed all my clean pairs of socks but since I know he is at bridge club, that is no problem. I can simply retrieve them from the chest of drawers in his room.

Imagine my surprise, dear reader, as I wander into my father’s bedroom, clad only in my boxer shorts, to discover my father in bed. And not by himself! There, sitting up under the covers like some long-married couple on a Sunday morning, are my father and some floozie. Perhaps “floozie” is not quite the right word. The lady occupying the right-hand side of my father’s narrow bed, in obvious danger of falling out, looks barely younger than my Dad. She is wearing a relatively low-cut nightie which reveals rather more wrinkly brown flesh than I want to see at this hour of the afternoon. There is a hint of blue-rinse in her hair and I can see that she is fumbling round for her glasses.

It’s not often you catch your own father in flagrante. I must confess I’d rather assumed that such days were well behind him. The important thing, I sense, is not to act as if this is anything out of the ordinary. I take in the scene for a second or two – my father open-mouthed, his eyes pleading for … what?

“Oops, I’m sorry! Just wanted some socks!” I mumble at last and return to my own chambers.

As I find sufficient clothes to achieve a level of respectability, I can hear similar activity taking place next door. It is clear that there will be no further nookie this afternoon, if indeed there had been any prior to my unfortunate intervention. I really do not want to consider whether such things are even possible at my father’s age, at least without some kind of chemical assistance. Parents can really embarrass you sometimes.

I expect to hear the creak of the stairs and a slam of the front door but instead there is a knock on my own door. My father and his now fully-clothed partner troop in a little shamefacedly.

“Look, I’m really sorry, Dad,” I begin. “I didn’t realise you were in the house …”

“It’s OK, Alex. No, really. Have you met Gwen?”

“I … I don’t think so.”

Gwen and I shake hands as if we had just agreed to divvy up the old Austro-Hungarian empire.

“I met Gwen at bridge club,” Dad says.

“I thought you had been spending rather a lot of time there recently!”

“Have I?” My father considers this proposition for a moment or two. “Yes, perhaps I have. Gwen has got me playing Precision for the first time in my life!”

“Well, careful you don’t wear out your welcome with random Precision!” I suggest.

“My welcome? What on earth do you mean?” My father and Gwen exchange anxious glances. “Gwen’s daughter has invited us to spend Christmas down at her house in Bracknell …”

“But, surely …”

“So you will have this house to yourself at that time, as long as you promise not to hold any wild parties and trash the place.”

It is my turn not to get the joke.

“Father, I am twenty-eight. I don’t think I will be advertising a rave on Facebook.”

“But you will be all right, won’t you?”

“I would refer m’learned colleague to my first answer. I’m nearly twenty-nine. Of course I will be all right. A little damp and cold, perhaps, but maybe you will leave me a shilling for the meter.”

“You could go and stay with your mother.”

“No, I shall endure this pagan festival with my usual stoicism here in Oxford. Besides, I have my best man duties to perform on the 30th.”

“Well, that’s good. Only, the thing is …” My father seems to be searching for the right words.

“Yes, Dad?”

The two wrinkly lovebirds swap further conspiratorial glances.

“I have suggested to Gwen that she might come and live here. Not right now. In the New Year.”

“What, in this pokey little rabbit-hutch? Do you think it will be above water by then?”

“Who knows?”

“There is barely enough room here for the two of us, never mind three!”

My father and his slightly podgy paramour both wince.

“Yes, it would be rather crowded …”

The penny drops.

“You want me to move out, don’t you?”

“No, Alex, it’s not like that at all. Not straight away. But maybe in time you’ll find somewhere else that’s more suitable for a chap of …”

“Of what? My age?”

My father shrugs his shoulders and sighs. Gwen looks as if she is hoping that the ground will swallow her up, however high the water-table might be.

“Don’t worry, Dad, I’m out of here. I know exactly where I will be after December 30th. I shan’t be a waste of space in Swan Street.”

“I’m sorry, Alex, I didn’t want you to find out like this.”

“Like what?”

“Well, you know.” He gestures to the adjoining room. We all shuffle a little uncomfortably.

“You are forgetting the most important thing, Reg,” Gwen says at last.

“What’s that, pet?”

“The news you’ve had …”

“The news? Ah, yes. We’ve had some sad news, Alex. In fact, that was the reason Gwen came home with me this afternoon. I was a bit upset.”

“Yes, I could see that, just now.”

“There’s no need to be sarcastic.”

“So what was this sad news?”

“It’s your Uncle Alan.”

All sorts of possibilities flash through my mind in an instant.

“Is he … ill?”

My father looks at Gwen again. I feel a freezing sensation in the pit of my stomach.

“He’s dead, isn’t he? But I heard from him only a fortnight ago. Tell me it’s not so!”

“I’m sorry, son. A severe chill, it seems.”

“And you hadn’t even got round to telling me!”

“That’s not fair. This is the first chance I’ve had.”

“My wonderful Uncle Alan, dead? He was ten times the man you will ever be. And you didn’t think to even let me know!”

“Alex! Alex!”

But it is too late. I have stormed out of my own room and stomped down the stairs as noisily as is possible barefoot. I throw on my waterlogged wellies and a coat and exit Oates-like into the cold December rain. With any luck, I too will be carried off by a severe chill, if apoplexy does not get me first.

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