Extract from The Good Father
Hope came to the funeral. I noticed her as I followed the coffin through the church porch where I had to pause whilst the bearers shifted their load discretely on their shoulders. Standing at the back of the church, she turned to me and smiled that delicate smile of hers, lowering her eyes almost at once, not expecting me to smile back perhaps, perhaps believing that smiling was some breach of funeral etiquette. Perhaps it was, but I smiled all the same, although she didn’t see me. No one saw me because my father’s coffin blocked the congregation’s view of my face. For those few seconds as the undertaker’s men synchronised themselves and Hope lowered her eyes from her brief, shy smile, I thought how lovely she was; if I were poetical I would say that my heart seemed to expand a little, that I felt suddenly generous and good and hopeful, and I smiled. The bearers began their slow progress up the aisle; I made my face solemn again, an appropriate expression for such a time.
We sang I Vow to Thee My Country and Jerusalem and The Lord’s My Shepherd – hymns my father had chosen years ago, planning for his death well in advance, as he planned everything. There were not many mourners, Doctor Walker of course, Mrs Hall, Mr Hall, a few of the neighbours my father so despised. I had informed cousins that he had not seen for years and I have never met, but they declined to attend, citing ill-health and old age. So I stood in the front pew alone. The wreath of white chrysanthemums that graced the dark coffin filled the air with its peppery scent and the bright cubes of light from the stained glass window were cast at my feet, and I sang the hymns and said the prayers, all the time thinking that if I turned around I would see Hope, her head bowed to her hymn book. I thought I could hear her voice above all the others, sweet and clear, singing the too-familiar words of lambs and green pastures; I thought too that I could feel her eyes on me, her soft, concerned gaze. How wrong it would be to turn around, what a bad impression I would give of myself, a man who couldn’t concentrate on his grief, on the solemnity of the occasion, but glanced about the church like a tourist. But it would have only been a glance. And although I longed to I didn’t. I was as well behaved as ever in my father’s presence. I was right and proper and straight-backed and I sang not too quietly, not too loudly but clearly and with my head raised so that I looked straight at the window that shed its coloured light at my feet, the window that depicted the Good Shepherd, a benign and sadly smiling Christ, pale and blond and tender as Hope.
The vicar, the congregation and I followed the coffin out into the graveyard. The sun shone and the sky was a rare, beautiful blue, the blue one only ever sees in England in spring time. Earlier the verger had cut the grass around the old graves and there was a neat and tidiness about the place, enhanced by the daffodils that grew beneath the sticky-budded chestnut trees and along the gravel path. The gravel whitened my shoes and felt sharp beneath their thin soles, making me think of penances and returning my mind to the funeral lunch. Mrs Hall had prepared a tongue and salads, bread and butter and a fruit cake. Too much food, as though she was expecting hungry hoards of mourners and not just this sad little gathering. I thought she knew my father better.
Beside the grave with its mound of lumpy clay earth, I watched Hope walk away along the path that led through the graveyard. Of course she would not stay, would not come back to the house as I had hoped. She would not wish to intrude as she would think of it. I had to hold myself back from running after her. I had to bow my head and clasp my hands together and close my eyes in prayer, as sons do at their father’s funeral as the coffin is lowered and the words said.
Hope was wearing her school uniform, the dark navy blazer and skirt and long, dark brown socks that show her pale, still childish knees. She is very slim and tall but the blazer makes her look rather square and bulky. There was a long, golden hair on her shoulder, shining against the dark cloth. I wish she’d stayed, but lately there has been a kind of shyness between us; she echoes my gangling self-consciousness, together we are all awkward smiles and side-steps, she bristles away from me when once she would throw herself with such force into my arms I’d be momentarily winded. I tell myself I always knew that one day she’d grow away from me.
Later, when I had the house to myself again, when even Mrs Hall had gone home having cleared away the sorry remains of the funeral lunch, I walked through the empty house, going from room to room and thinking how silent it was, how full of silent things – oil paintings, china ornaments of flower baskets and pug dogs, tapestry fire screens in dull faded threads that made me wonder why their makers worked in such dismal colours. All I own seems to be in a shade of brown that was chosen for its ugliness. The heavy drapes and swags at the windows are an odd shade of mink, faded because they’ve hung at these windows all my life at least.
Everything in this house is as it was in my childhood. Even when I returned home from the war I realised after a few days, not really caring, that in the years of my absence not so much as an umbrella had been moved from its place. It seemed too that my father had hardly moved, sitting at his desk when I returned just as he had been when I left. I remember how, on my return, he looked up at me from a letter he was writing, saw what a poor, wretched shadow I had become and shook his head. ‘So,’ he said, ‘you’re back.’ No bunting for me, then, no girls to throw flowers, no children waving flags, no mother to cry and laugh with relief. The war – even my war, the Japanese war – had been over for almost a year. No one cared at all that I should have returned. Not even I cared very much. In those days I felt nothing but the cold.
I stood in the window, framed by the faded swags and tails, and remembered how my father had got up from his desk and crossed the room to stand before me. He looked me up and down quite deliberately, theatrically almost, frowning sardonically. He was shorter and stockier than I, and I felt like a great, lanky weed beside him just waiting to be cut down; nothing had changed between us; six years of experience might just as well have been six hours, the time I had spent away from his study nothing more than an evening at the pictures for all it helped me to stand up to him. I left as a boy and returned as a boy, only with worse dreams, nightmares that could compare with his. Soon both of us would both be screaming the house down at night, neither admitting to the other that he had been disturbed.