Her car glides around the bend and suddenly the colours change. The light sky is swallowed by a darker cover and the yellow fields of barley and oats become bottle green and mud brown: land for livestock, not crops. A flooded field shines silver: a reflection of the slate-grey sky, the sun gleaming through the clouds.
She has been driving for four hours. She is coming home.
Yesterday, her dad phoned her. He had been looking through his old family albums again and had landed on one particular photo. Couldn’t move on from it. Called her to describe it. Said, ‘The baby is sitting in the middle of the backyard on his own. Underneath, someone’s written Baby John.’ Baby John is him. She knows the photo well.
On the phone to her dad she had said, ‘I’m coming home.’
‘Oh no,’ he replied. ‘No need for that.’
North-west England has always been this colour, she thinks, as she crests the rain-wet bottle-green hill to view the mill town below, the spire of St Michael’s glinting like the silver flooded field. Further south, the towers of Christchurch answer to the rising brickwork of Paradise Mill. As the road descends into the town, she feels red Victorian terraces crowding around her and she looks up and out to the Peak District backdrop to breathe. Out there, in the yellowy hills, the sky is wider.
A baby boy alone in the backyard. And now, that boy is in his eighties and feeling on his own again, so she is coming home to look after him.
It is a scene she has been anticipating for years, so she has a plan in place. The practicalities are the easy part: making arrangements with her landlord and her employer. She is coming home to continue the role she played when her mother left. Thirty years in London suddenly seem like an interruption of her real life.
She arrives at his street. Both sides are crammed with parked cars, but there’s a small spot further down on the right that she could squeeze into. It takes several expert pincer manoeuvres before she can turn the engine off and sit quietly for a few moments watching her father’s brick-red terrace in the rear-view mirror. Once upon a time, it would have been a family home for one of the mill workers. The canal slides behind the row of terraces; perhaps they could have an evening walk along the towpath, if she can persuade him, past Victoria Mill on the far side and under the bridge to stop off for a drink at the Pack Horse. The skies darken overhead and droplets of rain fall onto the windscreen.
‘Oh, here you are,’ he grunts when he opens the door to let her in. The photo album is nowhere to be seen; the phone is back on its hook. ‘You needn’t have come. I’m just boiling the kettle.’
As he reaches for the teabags, she steals a furtive glance at the organised worktops, the empty draining board, the clock hands pointing to the correct time. She opens the fridge door for the milk and notices how well-stocked the shelves are. Everything seems to be in order.
‘All right, Dad?’ she says as she takes the steaming mug from him. She smiles and tries to catch his eye.
‘There’s things in the fridge for tea,’ he says. ‘If you’re staying.’
She suppresses a sigh and puts her mug down so that she has both hands free to root around and find ingredients.
It still surprises her to see stewing beef in there. A head of cabbage; leftover dripping from a weekend roast. Double cream to thicken sauces; three different mustards in the cupboard. On busier weeks, a ball of clingfilmed pastry; rising dough under a warm tea towel in a bowl on the side.
After her mother left, she had taken over the kitchen duties, assuming her Dad couldn’t cook for himself. For years, she made the meals her mother had made: baked ratatouille, chicken thighs swimming in red wine, asparagus dripping with melted butter. Rich, gluttonous dishes designed to warm the belly and chip away at her dad’s absent look. Even after a day’s studying at university, she would come home and whip up a pork cassoulet or bake two fillets of salmon in garlic butter before cutting him a large slice of the apricot tart she’d made at the weekend. Before leaving for London, she had bought him a microwave and stocked the freezer with frozen ready meals; meals-for-one. Returning home two weeks later to check up on him, she had found the freezer meals where she’d left them, the microwave still in its box. In the fridge, tell-tale leftovers: a portion of toad-in-the-hole, slices of cold ham. And freshly baked bread in the bread bin. She had made pea and ham soup for their lunch and taken the meals-for-one back with her to London.
Now, she lets her hand float past half a steak-and-ale pie and instead picks out peppers, beef mince and goat’s cheese. Her mother used to stuff a marrow for the three of them; two bell peppers are enough now.
What she hadn’t realised was that when he was growing up, his father, Jack, worked as a chief baker for a family-run firm. She’d found a photo of her dad as a boy, watching the bread being made. After a few visits to the factory, he was allowed to knead the dough, to shape the offcuts into mice and sprinkle sugar over them. Once, they let him operate the slicing machine. When he was old enough, he began being paid for his work and was put in charge of Confections. Rationing was relaxed and he could be more inventive: hot chocolate biscuits made with cocoa powder and cayenne pepper; chocolate peanut-butter creams – ‘Real American Ingredients!’; the trusty ginger snap.
Slide forwards in time and he has a wife, a daughter. She is taken by surprise when her mother leaves; he seems not to be. But, having always been a quiet man, he sinks further into himself, his voice gruff when he does speak. He lets her take over and step into her mother’s shoes. He lets her make the meals and look after him, as if the parent–child roles have reversed. How was she to know he had all that mastery and expertise in the kitchen? And now, when she comes home, she takes over again, whilst he retreats to his easy chair and grumbles.
The next day, he wants her to go with him to the solicitor’s.
‘It’s necessary,’ he says.
‘But you’ve told me what’s in it,’ she replies, meaning the will.
He doesn’t say anything. Perhaps he’s made some changes.
The solicitor lives in a basement. At least, that is what she thinks when they follow the carpeted stairs down to a dingy, windowless space that’s piled high with cardboard boxes.
‘Between offices,’ he says apologetically, although it looks as if he’s well-embedded; the carpet is clogged with dust and she spots several permanent imprints from where pieces of furniture have been shifted. ‘Graham Thomas,’ he says, leaning over his desk and holding out his hand.
When they sit, she realises how small the desk is. They are all too close to one another and the stale-coffee air presses in.
She refuses a hot drink and they go through the minor adjustments her father has made to his will. As they’re walking home, she wonders what the point of the visit was.
‘All right, Dad?’ she checks, as they approach his street.
‘Think we’ll have to go back.’
‘Really? To Thomas Graham, or Graham Thomas…’
‘You know, you should have a husband.’ He mumbles the words, but they have some force behind them. ‘I’m not going to be around forever.’
She looks sideways at him. The visit to the solicitor starts to make sense. It was an introduction to Graham Thomas; the law is a respectable profession, she can hear her dad say. Do I need looking after? she imagines herself replying. Instead, she takes his arm. ‘Don’t say that, Dad.’ He grunts and pulls away, bows his head to stare at the ground as they walk into the house.
Before cutting sandwiches for lunch, she browns stewing beef and shallots and sinks them into a red wine stock in the slow cooker. Later, she’ll serve the stew with creamy mashed potatoes for dinner.
Because the sun’s out, they eat their sandwiches in the small garden which backs onto the canal, but the chill in the air sends her dad back inside as soon as he is finished. She brings a blanket out and sits watching the water. She watches the walkers on the towpath opposite; a barge slides past.
She thinks of the photo, Baby John. There are two other pictures in the sequence. Dated six years later, the second photo shows the front face of a cathedral in a rainy square; two motor cars parked against railings, perpendicular to the building: Manchester Cathedral. In the final picture, the little boy, dressed in his long white shirt over short trousers, stands next to a plot in a graveyard, grinning for the camera. The headstone is as tall as he is. John by his mother’s grave 1941.
Inside, she finds her dad standing next to the coat pegs, at the front door. He looks puzzled and lost.
She takes the blanket and wraps it around his shoulders. He lets himself be walked into the sitting room and placed in his chair.
‘There was something I had to do,’ he says to himself. ‘At the front door.’
‘You wanted us to go back to the solicitor, Dad. But we don’t need to do that today. Shall I make you a cup of tea?’
He doesn’t seem to hear her, and she doesn’t want to leave him, so they sit together for a moment.
Suddenly, he looks directly at her. ‘You didn’t need to come.’
‘I know, Dad.’
He turns away from her, dissatisfied. ‘Are you getting that tea, then?’
She calls through from the kitchen. ‘Beef stew for dinner. That all right?’ She hears him muttering and pops her head back into the sitting room. ‘You’ve got some Bramleys on the tree out the back. Why don’t you make some pastry whilst I chop them up?’
Slightly bewildered, he stays in his chair for a minute. She has never asked him to cook with her before, but now she has disappeared into the back garden for the apples and he is left to hoist himself up and into the kitchen where he finds a hot cup of tea waiting for him next to the mixing bowl and rolling pin.
‘Two should be enough,’ she says, tossing an apple into the air and closing the back door behind her. ‘Shall I reach the flour for you?’
Frowning, he opens the cupboard door and brings down the ingredients.
‘Didn’t think I’d have to do the cooking whilst you’re here. Thought you’d come to help.’
He measures out the flour and butter by eye. Rubbing the mixture together, he adds a touch of icing sugar and an egg yolk and brings it together with a drop of water. Before she has finished peeling and coring, the pastry is clingfilmed and cooling in the fridge. He watches her slice the apples and says, ‘Mashed potatoes are best with beef stew.’
Out of the corner of her eye, she watches him take potatoes from the small sack under the worktop; she slides the chopping board his way.
After she has drunk the last of her tea, she takes the pastry from the fridge and begins rolling it out. Fitting it snugly into the pie dish, she spirals the apple slices on top and then sprinkles cinnamon. She is about to finish with the lid when he stops her. He has a special way of doing it and she steps back to allow him to take over.
‘Might as well do it properly,’ he says, as he begins to lattice strips of pastry. He works the offcuts with his hands until she can see delicate leaves start to emerge. When he has several, he places them carefully so that they spread around the rim of the pie. It looks beautiful.
‘Dad, I want to be here.’
With his back to her, he reaches for a tea towel and covers the pie.
After a moment he says, ‘You know, I wasn’t kind.’ He is talking about her mother. ‘She waited until you were old enough, and then she left.’
She gets up and puts an arm around his shoulder.
He stiffens, so she takes her arm away and fills a pan with cold water. Scooping up the peeled potatoes, she drops them into the water and sits the pan on the hob, ready for boiling later on.
That afternoon, after his nap, she takes her dad for a walk up the canal. They stop in for a drink at the Pack Horse and, stepping out into the evening, he takes her arm.
‘Let’s go home,’ he says, and they walk back together to a hot dinner.
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