Lately, things have started sneaking up on me, appearing in places where they shouldn’t be. First it was the kettle, kept appearing in the biscuit cupboard or on the bottom shelf in the fridge. Then my book turned up in the washing machine, corners curled, pages saturated and stuck together. When I finally managed to get it open, the ink had all run together on the pages so that I couldn’t read it. It’s a shame. It wasn’t expensive, but I’d been enjoying it. Now, if only I could remember what it was called, I could go back and ask if they have another copy. It’ll come back to me. It always does, in the end.
I get up to make myself some tea. Standing up isn’t the straightforward task it used to be. Sophie keeps telling me to get a stick, says it makes a man look dignified, refined. “I’m still fully capable,” I tell her, “to get around quite fine without a stick. When my legs stop working, I’ll consider it.” She gives me her usual sad smile, then carries on helping me strip the bed, or wash the pots, or whatever we’re doing. I can tell that she’s always watching me, so I take extra care not to do anything wrong. It seems like she’s not just popping over to see me these days. She’s checking up on me. At least when Matthew comes over, it feels like he’s happy to be here.
In the kitchen, I make tea, the way I’ve made it for years. Take the cup off the shelf, check that it’s been cleaned properly, rinse it out just to be sure, make sure there’s water in the kettle. Then put the teabag into the cup, pour on water, milk and stir in a sweetener. Perhaps take a biscuit out of the cupboard, if I’m in the mood. Today, I have a shortbread finger. I put another on the saucer and close the tin. No need to be greedy. I’ll be eating my tea soon.
There’s a scraping at the front door, like somebody’s trying to put a key in the lock, then a loud, urgent knock. A strange car is parked at the end of the drive, a fancy black one, shiny as a well-polished shoe. The registration is hidden behind my marigolds. Another knock. I put my tea on the phone-stand and unlock it.
“Matthew? What are you doing here?” He smiles, looks relieved. I pull him into a tight hug, seeing another young man over his shoulder, smiling sheepishly.
“I’m giving a talk in Leeds, so I thought I’d pop in. This is my friend David. He’s giving the afternoon lecture tomorrow.”
“Hello, son.” I shake his hand. He has a brisk shake, business-like, no-nonsense. I like him already.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Waters. I’ve heard so much about you.” So polite I feel like I’m in a courtroom. Still, it’s not a bad thing.
“Come in, both of you. I’ll make you a drink. What’ll you have, David? Tea? Coffee? Apple juice? I’ve got some lemonade in the cupboard, if you’d prefer that?”
“Coffee please, Mr. Waters.” He ducks through the door and slips his shoes off onto the mat, moving them over to the little table. Shiny, black leather, to match his car.
I take a sip of tea. It’s freezing. Didn’t I just make it? I take two cups off the shelf, check that they’ve been cleaned properly, rinse them out just to be sure, make sure there’s water in the kettle. Then put the teabags and coffee granules into the cups, boil the kettle, pour on water.
“How do you take it, son?”
“Black please. No sugar.” Black. Like his shoes, like his car. Matthew hangs both of their coats on the stand by the door, one inside the other like those nesting dolls you see in Russia. His coat isn’t black, I notice, but a nice tan overcoat with a high collar and two big buttons. Probably expensive.
“Show him through,” I tell Matthew, adding a spoonful of sugar to the coffee and stirring it in. No milk, he said, one sugar. I put the milk back in the fridge and carry their drinks through.
When I get back in the room, they’re looking at a photo from my mantelpiece, one of him and Sophie as kids, eating ice creams at Yarmouth. Their mother’s behind them, smiling a small smile, only half-looking at the camera. It’s one of the only ones I have of her, apart from our wedding photographs and some professional ones we’d had done as teens, when she used to wear her hair down and smoke Lucky Strikes. She’d always secretly wished that we’d had kids earlier. I’d made her wait until we were married and could support them properly. When you marry your teen sweetheart, you tend to take things slower. Why rush? There’s no hurry. Or, at least, not normally.
“And that’s my big sister, Sophie. She manages a little tailor’s shop in the city centre. I’ll have to take you over the weekend.” They haven’t heard me come in.
“Here you go, boys. Yours’ll still be a little hot, Sam. Hold on a sec while I bring the biscuit tin in.”
“Wait, Dad, let me. You sit yourself down.” Matthew walks into the kitchen, while his friend settles himself into the other armchair, as on-edge as a deserter waiting for the firing squad to load their rifles. A moment later, Matthew comes back with my tea and the biscuits, putting both on the coffee table close enough for me to reach. He sits on the settee, on the side closest to Sam.
“How’ve you been then, Dad?”
“Not bad, thanks. I finished that book you brought me, and got another from that charity shop in town. Something-Rock, I think. About a gang down south.”
“Brighton Rock?” Sam offers, and I nod.
“That’s the one. Cracking read. Have you read it?”
“Yes, I have. I’m covering it this term, actually. I teach English Literature. The students love it. A few are writing their theses on it.”
He nods, and I turn back to Matthew. He’s drinking his tea slowly, reaching for a digestive. “How about your lot? What are you teaching them this year?”
“At the moment we’re covering the sixties and its impact on society today.”
“The sixties? That’s not history. That just happened.” I laugh loudly, startling Sam. He wipes away a trail of coffee that has spilt onto his hand, taking a small sip. His face twists a little as he drinks it. It must still be too hot.
Matthew shrugs and chuckles a little, setting his cup down. “I don’t choose the syllabus. It’s probably a good thing, too. Otherwise I’d be teaching them all about Ancient Greece for three years.”
I nod. “And how about outside work? Have you found yourself a nice girl yet?”
He picks his cup up again, staring at the tea inside as though there’s a fly swimming in it. “Not yet, Dad.”
“Well you’d better get a move on, son. You don’t want to leave it too late. You only get one chance at life, and there are only so many decent girls out there. You need to snap up one of the good ones before everyone else does.” I turn again to look at his friend. “How about you, Sam? Have you got a nice girl?”
“Not exactly,” he answers into his untouched coffee.
“What is it with young people today? As a lad, I was frantic. Manic, almost. At nineteen, I met your mother. Matthew, you’re thirty. You can’t wait for the right person to just drop into your lap and let you buy her a drink. It doesn’t work like it does in the movies, boys.”
Matthew sips his tea in silence, Sam stares at the clock. I glance at my watch. Five-fifteen.
“I’d better start making my tea, boys. I’ll be right back.”
“Actually, Dad, we have to check in at the hotel at six. We’ll come over on Saturday if you like? The three of us can go out for a meal in town.”
“That sounds great, son. Saturday it is. Just let me write it on the calendar.” They follow me to the kitchen, slipping their feet into their shoes as I take the calendar down from the wall. “That’s the twenty-eighth, right, son?”
“That’s right. The twenty-eighth.” He seems pleased to be able to take his old Dad out to dinner. I’ll wear my best. “Bye then, Dad. We’ll see you Saturday.” He hugs me firmly, and I pat his shoulder, then give Sam a small wave.
“See you both Saturday.”
I walk to the kitchen window to wave them off, seeing that fancy black car pulling away smoothly and gliding down the road. I turn to get one of my ready-meals out of the fridge and there it sits, on the bottom shelf, an unexpected, unwanted guest. The kettle.
Third year English and Creative Writing student