Morning frost: A short story by Ross Macfarlane
‘I BLAME the army! All that discipline . . . ”
Jenny barked down the phone to her sister-in-law. She stood in her kitchen, looking through the window as the dawn light crept over her back garden.
“And with Dad being posted all over the place, we were all shunted around. And we were only children. I must have gone to at least six different schools . . .”
Today was particularly important. Jenny was taking her father to Waverley Station for the early morning train. Now in his mid-eighties, he was travelling to stay with an old army friend for Christmas, but on his return he would start living full-time at the Retirement Community.
“He just doesn’t see it. Now that Mum’s gone, Dad’s far too old to live by himself. He says that we’re dumping him into a home . . .” Jenny’s eyes filled with tears for a moment, but she brushed them away with some paper kitchen towel.
“Anyway, I hear him up and about. I’ll ring you later and tell you how it all went.”
In the car, on the way to Waverley, father and daughter travelled in silence.
Major Jeremy F Campbell (retired) sat ramrod-straight in the front passenger seat. Smartly dressed, he had chosen his best Harris Tweed jacket and slacks, and his neck saw the flourish of a Paisley-patterned cravat. Still dapper and alert, he stroked his trimmed, white moustache as he continued to bark orders at Jenny: “Jennifer! Mind that cyclist, now. Blasted fool – he’ll get us all killed.”
“Dad,” Jenny tried to remain patient. “Calm down. I saw him. I’ve been driving now for over 30 years – I think I know how to handle a wobbly cyclist.”
Had it always been like this? Jenny tried to think of a time when she and her dad had not bickered. And then she had a sudden memory of when she had been a child in the car while he was driving. She was lying across the back seat, sleepy, with a tartan blanket over her. Safe, secure, protected.
When she was a girl, Dad had always been there in her imagination somewhere, patrolling the outside world while she slept. Keeping her and her mother and her brother safe. But there had always been an emotional distance . . . “And look at that fellow in the white van! What does he think he’s doing?”
Jenny looked over. The white van man appeared to be texting on his mobile phone.
“It ought to be illegal.”
“Dad, it is illegal. But if you want to stop and report him, then I think we’ll miss your train.”
“No respect. No respect for himself or others. And why the blazes is he using the confounded phone while he’s driving?
“What can possibly be so important that he feels that he can take his eyes off the road to communicate his thoughts?”
“Welcome to the modern world, Dad.”
“The modern world. Ha! A land of orange non-entities posing as celebrities . . .”
“How different from your day, huh?”
“At least in my day, we didn’t have pimply youths in cars texting each other that life was ‘gr8’ . . .”
“No, Dad, you had the intellectual pleasures of singing ‘Mairzie Doats and Dozy Doats’ and ‘Run, Rabbit Run’ . . .”
The old man raised his eyes heavenwards, shook his head and turned his face away to look out of the side window.
Was that it? Was their whole relationship based on bickering? Was this petty arguing the nearest that they had ever come to a real father-daughter relationship?
“For goodness sake – not another set of roadworks. The whole city is like a disused building site. Trams, trams, trams – what was wrong with the old red and white ones? Change for change’s sake . . .”
Jenny stood on the platform. She had helped her Dad onto the train and the old man was now safely ensconced with his sandwiches and book. The train wouldn’t leave for another ten minutes. Dad was studying his newspaper.
The outside window of the train was frosting over in the early morning Edinburgh mist, and so Jenny rubbed the elbow of her coat against the window to get a better view of the inside.
And there he was. Her old Dad. A man in his eighties who had recently lost his wife. A man who had been born into a world where he could never tell his children “I love you”. This had to be understood by the fact that he would rise every day at dawn and work long, long, back-breaking hours to give his children a better start in life than he had.
Dad had never once told Jenny that he loved her. And she had never said those words to him.
And now, as she saw him sitting there looking so small and alone, a great rush of tenderness and regret filled her eyes.
She knocked on the window. Dad looked up from his newspaper. Jenny put her finger on the frosted glass. Then she scratched out:
She looked down quickly to the ground, like a child who expected to be punished. And when she looked up again she examined her father’s face. It was impossible to read.
Then, very deliberately, the old man took his finger up to the window, and under the drawing of
he added the number:
And just for a moment, his face lit up in an enormous smile – and there he was, the Dad of old, handsome, confident, ready to face whatever the world had to throw at him. Then he waved his hand, impatiently shooing Jenny away before returning to the safety of his newspaper . . .
On the drive home, Jenny was on the (hands-free) telephone:
“How did he seem? Oh, you know what he’s like. He’s from that generation, isn’t he? No big fuss about anything. No fuss at all. They just get on with it, don’t they? I know. They’re just so different from us. Hold on a second . . . okay, sorry about that, just some careless cyclist on the road. Blasted fool – he’ll get us all killed! No respect, that’s the problem. And – honestly! – these trams . . .”
© Ross Macfarlane, 2012.