Called Away

A climate change researcher visits his son and his son's young family to tell them he'll be away at a conference and they should keep his wife in good cheer in his absence. They visit his home and get a shock.

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1. Called Away

 

             

                     Called Away

 

 

          “Daddy! Mummy! Daddy! Daddy! Mummy!”

Six-year-old Ellie’s piping voice jerked them up on their beach towels. Bill cricked his neck as he sat up.  Jean, who was reading, dropped her book. Ellie’s brother, Leo, should be with her. He was a fairly level-headed fourteen.  Had he left her?

It was early September and the final day of their holiday. They were in Hunstanton where Bill had spent many a summer as a child. It had become as special for him as it was for his mother who came from the district. His parents had eventually bought a cottage nearby, which he now borrowed for his young family’s holidays.

        He had slept badly the night before, beset by a nightmare in which he was driving their car flat out through misty fenland, the accelerator pedal inexplicably stuck to the floor. Tall reeds swept by on either side and rabbits sprang into their path. He fought with the steering-wheel to avoid them and Jean cringed in the seat beside him, scared the car would overturn.

He had woken early that morning and had dozed off again on the sand as the children played nearby. He squeezed the back of his neck hard as he looked around.

         Ellie ran over to them from the gaggle of children, parents, beach umbrellas, pails and spades sticking up out of the sand a few yards away.  Bill could just make out Leo among them, his green hat with the feather bobbing about.

 “I’m not going to wear that Christopher Robin thing,” he had said ungraciously when Jean had given him the white cloth hat she had bought for him. “I’m not a baby.”

So Bill had given him the Tyrolean souvenir hat that he had abandoned to the cupboard under the stairs almost from the moment he had bought it.

 Leo had had sunstroke once and popular belief held that a second stroke would be fatal. Jean insisted he wore a hat on the beach even on cloudy days. “Violet rays come through the clouds, you know. They can roast you to a deep shade of purple. So what else can they do? I don’t know, but we’re taking no risks.”

Ellie pulled at Bill’s arm, her impish face alight with excitement. “Daddy! Granddad is here!”

Bill was now sure she was up to some mischief.  “How can Granddad be here? He’s in Cambridge.”

Jean came over and knelt beside them. She pushed the curls back from Ellie’s face. “Are you fibbing, or have you contrived to get sunstroke too on an overcast afternoon?”

“I’m not fibbing, Mummy. Leo is talking to Granddad over there. What’s ‘contrived’ mean?”

Jean was trying to light a cigarette against the wind and didn’t answer. Bill screwed up his eyes and looked past her at the gathering from where Ellie had come. Leo was talking to a man whose head was out of sight amongst the umbrellas but whose trouser legs were visible.

Bill smiled as he thought of his parents. They had met as students in Cambridge, where his father, Joe, had eventually settled into an academic life. Both positive people in their different ways, they seemed oddly mismatched superficially: Joe, totally taken up with research on climate change; Anne, apparently more down-to-earth with household concerns, but with her own special dream of animal welfare.  There was a time when she held her own clinic for injured birds on their back porch. Some had had broken wings. Others had alighted on the sharp anti-pigeon perches installed on some window ledges and had lost claws, crippling their ability to strut in the way pigeons do. Anne had splinted wings, disinfected wounds and generally coddled them till they flew off, Joe helping to feed them in an absent-minded sort of way. He had teased her about the angry letters she fired off to the press about the treatment humans meted out to animals; she, in turn, had serious doubts about his work. “We need another Winston Churchill to tell the world it’s got to stop appeasing tax-payers,” she would say. “Most people don’t believe in climate change, or don’t want to. So they don’t want to pay up to fight against it.”

Bill got up. “Jeanie, we’d better see what’s happening. Ellie’s very excited about something and Leo is talking to somebody. I don’t really see how my dad can be here. There’s no reason for him to come.”

They walked over to the umbrellas and deck chairs and prone figures on beach towels and sure enough the man to whom Leo was talking was his grandfather.

“Good heavens, Dad! What are you doing here?” Bill’s face puckered with anxiety. “Why have you come? Is everything all right? How is Mum?”

Joe chuckled. “No panic. Your mother’s well. And the house still stands. I’m off on my travels again.”

“Don’t tell me! You’re going to another conference.”

“I got a call yesterday. Apparently I can still be useful. And it won’t be a three-day affair this time.”

“You mean people are at last worried about melting ice and rising seas?”

“Our future isn’t guaranteed, you know.  Nobody’s is.” He stepped beyond Bill and pecked Jean on the head. “How are you Jean, my dear? Is he treating you well?”

“So, so,” Jean said. “My goodness I do believe you control the weather yourself.  You’ve stirred up a cold breeze!” She pulled her towel closer round her shoulders. “We must take our holidays earlier. Autumns are definitely not what they were.”

“Climate change, my dear. Climate change.”

“How did you know where to find us?”

“Simple. You weren’t at the cottage so where could you be with those two children but the beach. Eh, voila!”

“You must have lunch with us,” Bill said.

“Can’t. Must get off. I’ll be away a long time and I want you to keep an eye on your mum while I am away. Go and see her. Get her to stay with you occasionally. Don’t let her mope.”

He turned to go and then turned back again. “By the way, I like the way both kids want to study something scientific. It augurs a bright future for them. Leo is keen on physics and Ellie is interested in botany. They should go a long way with those. You must encourage them.”

He started away again and Leo jumped forward.

“Granddad! Don’t go! I like science. But maybe I won’t do physics. I like computers too! What do you think?”

His grandfather, who was already half-way to his car, lifted an arm and gave a thumbs-up.

Bill ran after him and the family followed, but he had disappeared when they reached the car park.

Bill shouted: “Dad! Where are you? You must stay to lunch, at least!”

Bill was standing on tip-toe looking over the tops of the cars when Jean and the children caught up with him. “I don’t see how he could have gone so quickly,” he said.

“He must have parked somewhere else. But don’t worry. We can call him.”

“There’s no phone in the cottage. We’ll have to find a phone box.”

There was one at the far end of the car park and Bill telephoned the house in Cambridge, hoping to speak to his mother. It rang and rang.  Then he tried his parents’ mobiles. There was no reply.

 “I wonder why he came,” Jean said. “He once called us from Havana to say where he was.”

“I suppose he had some time on his hands and came because he couldn’t get us on the phone. Remember? You suggested we remain incommunicado on holiday. No business calls. No friends passing the time of day.  No sales people and so on. We haven’t been in touch with them for three whole weeks. That’s unusual. Let’s have lunch and I’ll try Mum again afterwards.”

At teatime Anne answered her mobile: “I was with my friend Alison. Then I had to take Tippy to the vet. She’s developed some sort of feline snuffles. Sneezes violently every now and then. I left my phone at home.”

“Where’s Dad?”

“He’s lying down. He isn’t too well either.”

“That’s tough. He’s supposed to travel away soon, isn’t he?”

“I doubt he’ll be going.”

“As bad as that! Good heavens! He seemed so excited about it...”

“Oh, he spoke to you, did he? I’ve been trying to call you myself. Surely you know your father by now -- the eternal optimist! He’ll still be trying when the planet turns into a fiery ball. I’ve begged him and begged him to give himself some rest, especially since his retirement.”

“The line is crackling,” Bill shouted. “Your voice is breaking up. We’re heading home today. We’ll call round...”

“Fine! I’ll expect you this evening, then.”

It was dusk by the time they set off and after a while Bill began to feel he was driving into his dream. “I think we’ve got a bit lost,” he told Jean. “I must have taken a wrong turning. Look at all those reeds. I don’t remember them on the way here.”

“Never mind. The road will lead somewhere. We’ll get our bearings soon.”

They drove into a mist and Bill kept stamping on the brakes to spare the rabbits that hopped into their path.

The moon had risen, Leo had fallen silent and Ellie was asleep when they reached the house. Bill cradled her in his arm as he climbed the steps to the front door.

Jean pressed the bell.  

The door opened almost instantly as though Anne had been standing behind it. She looked spent in the hall light. She led the way silently to the sitting room. “Sit down,” she said abruptly.

When they were seated, she sat herself. “I have bad news,” she said after a pause. “I didn’t want to tell you at long distance, on the phone.”

She looked hard at Bill. Then she stood and walked over to him.

“Your father has died,” she said and her face suddenly crumpled, tears welling up and glistering in the light.

He stood, trembling, Ellie shaking in his arms. “How? When? He was with us on the beach this morning!”

“He can’t have been,” she sobbed. “He went in his sleep last night.”

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