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Ian R Macleod

The Roads

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The Roads
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I'll always believe that my father came back from the front late in the summer of 1917. I could barely remember the time when he'd lived at home, and his visits on leave had been brief, strained, somehow theatrical. He'd hand me creased-over postcards of foreign towns -- a few of them even had unsent messages on them, my name and address -- We're busy here taking a bash at the Hun. And I'd stare at them as he stood in the front room and placed his hands on my sister Marion's shoulders and said how she'd grown. My mother would wait in the corner -- nodding, smiling, lost of words, really, as we all were. I half-feared him, this green-clad man, filling our front room with his own rough scent and that of trains and disinfectant. Little as I was, I resented him, too. I liked being the only male in the house.

 

He'd change soon afterwards, bathing with his back shining though the open scullery door before putting on the clothes that fitted him so loosely now. My mother then ran an iron, steaming and spitting, along the seams of his uniform to kill the lice. Then tea and a cake from one of the neighbours, and everyone smiling, grinning. The house frozen with half-finished words and gestures, our figures blurred as if in a photograph, fanning wings of limbs, faces lost from all sense and meaning. Each night that my father was at home my mother's bedroom door would be closed and I would lie prisoner in the unloved sheets of my own bed, praying for that last morning when the cardboard suitcase reappeared in the hall.

"You'll take care? You'll look after Ma and Marion for me?"

I'd nod, knowing it was just his joke. And he'd stoop to hug me, encased once more in green and brass and buttons. The pattern remained the same over the war years; as much a fact of life as rules of grammar or the rank smell that filled our house when the wind blew east from the tanneries; and each time my father and the cardboard case he brought with him seemed smaller, more sunken, more battered. It was only late in the summer of 1917 when the war, if I had known it, was soon to end, that any of that ever changed.

I was wandering in the town Arboretum. You had to pay to get in in those days but I knew a way through the railings and I was always drawn to the bright scents and colours, the heaped confections of flowers. There was a lake in the centre -- deep and dark, a true limestone cavern -- and a small mouldering steamer that had plied prettily and pointlessly between one shore and the other before the war.

Each day of that changeable summer was like several seasons in itself. Forced outside to play by our mothers between meals, we had to put up with rain, wind, sunshine, hail. In the Arboretum -- watered and warmed, looming in flower scents, jungle fronds, greenish tints of steam -- everything was rank and feverish. The lawns were like pondweed. The lake brimmed over. I remember wandering along the paths from the white blaze of the bandstand, ducking the roses that clawed down from their shaded walk, pink-scented, unpruned; sharing in that whole faint air of abandonment that had come over our country at that time.

I saw a man walking towards me. A mere outline against the silvered lake -- but clearly a soldier from the cap he wore, from the set of this shoulders. I stopped. I could tell that he was walking towards me, and I felt a faint sinking in my heart even before I realised that it was my father.

"I thought I'd find you here," he said.

"Where's your case?" I asked.

He considered for a moment, his eyes hidden under the shadow of his cap. "I left it down at the station. Yes," he nodded to himself, "left luggage. My, you've grown..."

"You haven't been home?"

"I thought I'd come here first. See you."

I stared up at him, wondering how he could possibly have found out, all the way from those sepia-tinted postcard towns in France, about my habit of squeezing in through the Arboretum railings.

"We weren't..." I began.

"Expecting. No." My father breathed in, his moustache pricking out like a tiny broom. He seemed as surprised as I was to find himself here, but apart from the sunlit air and the birdsong and the sound of a child crying not far off in a pram, we were back straight away within the frozen silences that filled our front room. And this time he hadn't even remembered the postcards -- they were always the first thing he gave me. More than ever I wondered why he came back. All that travelling. Wouldn't it be simpler if he just stayed in France and got on with the war?

"I'd forgotten how nice these gardens are," he said as I began to walk with him. "What's it like here, son?" I felt, unseen behind me, the brief touch of his hands on my shoulders. "Does everyone hate the Germans?"

"They're bad aren't they?"

"Bad..." My father considered, turning the word over in his mouth. "I suppose you could say... But then..." It was unnerving; what I'd said seemed to mean something else to him entirely.

"Do you see many of them?"

"No," my father said. "I just build the roads."

I followed him out of the park through the turnstile.

"Are you hungry?" he asked. "Do you think we should eat? Is the Mermaid Cafe still open?"

We crossed the street and walked past the old bakery into town. Carts and cars and horses went by. My father stopped and stared blankly at one driven by a woman. ""Will you look at that? It's a different world here," he said, "isn't it?"

I nodded, already filled by the impression that I would remember this day, that these odd half-sensical things he was saying would become like the messages on those unsent postcards. Something I would study long after, looking for meaning.

It was growing darker now, the sun fading behind Saint Martin's church up the hill. A trolley bus went by, the sparks thrown by the gantry looming suddenly blue-bright. Layers of shadow seemed to be falling. It even felt cold now, so soon after the sun.



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