It had been a torpid morning’s play. Lancashire spent it very slowly hammering Middlesex into dust, the score at the lunch break seeing the northern county move into a seemingly unassailable four hundred and sixty-one run lead with six wickets in hand. William helped his father out of the seat he’d been sat in during the morning’s play; it was four along from the one William had chosen to sit in. Partly as a result of this, the two men had not exchanged a word during the entire session, which suited both parties just fine. As the father and son slowly made their way down to the bottom of the AA staircase of the Grand Stand, an Asian man with a long beard, dressed in a shalwar kameez and escorting three pre-adolescent children dressed in a similar fashion, walked directly in front of William and his father.
“Looks like they invited the Taliban to join us here today,” William’s father said, speaking in a loud enough tone of voice to ensure the Asian man heard him. William looked towards the bearded stranger passing by and mouthed the words “really sorry”. The man lowered his eyes and raised a palm in a gesture of peace. William saw in the offended man’s face the reflection of numerous such encounters faced over however many years he had been in Britain; the acceptance of such unashamed racism as the price to be paid for living in the West. For a brief moment, William serious considered openly chastising his father for his horrible display but then thought the better of it. Such interventions had only ever brought frustration and collective embarrasment.
The two men, father and son, walked in relatively close proximity to each other but decidedly not side by side as they strolled towards the Nursery End; a passer-by could have mistaken them for strangers were it not for the very similar looking faces that announced their shared close lineage. When they each reached their unspoken destination, and his father paused to regard the schoolchildren all throwing rubber cricket balls at each other’s plastic stumps, William broke the silence between them.
“Anything new from the doctors?”
His father scowled without turning to look at his son.
“I take it as an insult you’d even ask me about it.”
“I was just trying to make conversation.”
“Try making it about something other than my impending death.”
This comment killed any dialogue for another reasonably long period, as William seethed internally. How many times throughout his life he’d wished the old man would just drop dead, and instead of saying it, or that he secretly felt a small amount of relief and even a tiny morsel of joy when his mother had told him that his father had terminal cancer, here he was, at Lord’s on a weekday, work pilling up on him from all sides, burdening Angie with the childcare, all because he knew without it being spoken between he and his father that this would be the last day they would ever spend together. It was very likely that this day at Lord’s would constitute the very last time that William would ever see his father alive. And the old man wouldn’t even engage with him, as always.
“How’s that wife of yours, uh, what’s her name?” William’s father eventually said as the two of them strolled back towards the Pavilion End, the older man waving his hand and making a show of trying to recall Angie’s name. He could famously never do so. The two of them, father-in-law and daughter-in-law, had hated each other on first sight and barely tolerated the other’s company.
“She’s stuck with the kids today,” William said passive-aggressively. Again, he kicked himself inside. He never used passive-aggressive tactics outside of his dealings with his father and in fact deplored the use of them. Yet somehow he always found himself resorting to them in the presence of the old man.
“As it should be,” was William’s father’s predictable defensive stroke; a straight bat response. The two men climbed the stairs back up to the Grand Stand balcony and took the same seats they had done during the morning session. As they sat down, William’s father let out a groan that was part anguish and part relief; the walk and particularly the stairs had required him to dig deep into himself to find the energy. He’s too ill to be here today, William thought as he watched the old man try and recover himself. The players then made their way back out onto the pitch for the afternoon session and William and his father clapped their arrival. During the lunch interval and the accompanying, mostly silent trudge round the ground beside the old man, William had cheered himself up by thinking about how much he loved Lord’s when a county match was on; so different from when the throngs of England fans pack in to watch a test. You feel as if you have the whole place to yourself, a feeling not unlike that experienced by a small child at an amusement park on a particularly slow day. William then felt a ping of sadness at the fact his life was so full, full with work, with Angie, with the three kids, so full that the idea of spending a whole day watching a county cricket match seemed the ultimate indulgence. If only he was there this particularly day with someone else, someone he did not despise. It all seemed like such a waste to William as the first ball of the afternoon was blocked defensively by the batsman facing.
The afternoon session carried on from where the morning had left off in terms of which side was on top, but the pace had completely changed; the Lancashire runs now came at a clip, four or five an over. William and his father sat in silence for the first half an hour, until the old man got up, and with not inconsiderable effort, moved two seats closer to his son.
“This Murray kid looks a real prospect,” he said, without looking towards William.
“He’s from Liverpool, I think.”
“He’s a good judge of the ball. Oh nice shot!”
The aforementioned Murray, indeed a twenty-one year old batsman from Toxteth, had just then hit a four towards the Grand Stand, a stroke smack off the middle of his bat. As they both applauded the shot, William and his father looked at each other for the first time since they had met outside of Warwick Street tube station that morning. The look was brief, but reasonably warm, at least by the standards of what passed for familial amiability between the two men. William thought then about how he liked his father just a tiny smidgen more when they were together at the cricket. It was the only common interest they had ever shared.
They were silent again for almost an hour, both of them wishing to live off the shred of goodwill gifted to them by the talented number six batsman from Liverpool. William’s father broke the still abruptly.
“So Graham Norton: is he as gay as they come?”
This was a classic example of the sort of statement William’s father was known for amongst members of his family: the meant to be offensive, completely lacking in humour non sequitur. William never knew how to play these moments; by contrast, his sister, Rose, was the world’s grandmaster at it, always putting her father back in his cage without having to cause a scene.
“If you mean, is Graham Norton gay, I think the answer is yes, yes he is. But I actually have no idea.”
“How are the gays doing it these days?”
“I’m not sure, father, I haven’t been having a great deal of gay sex.”
An old bloke sat a few rows down from William and his father looked over his shoulder at them both briefly. William was prepared to mouth the words “really sorry” at the man, just as he had at the Asian gentleman during the lunch break, but the look was too brief. This mini-episode reminded William of his unstated role when out in public with his father: a sort of silent spin doctor, constantly apologising by means of non-verbal communication for his senior’s unpardonable behaviour.
“I guess they just do it every which way these days,” William’s father said after a pause that should have signalled a change of subject.
“I guess they do,” William responded with. There was silence again between the two men until the tea break.
During this period of time, William stewed about his father, playing back the old man’s “worst hits” from his childhood. He soon came upon one of his most vividly awful pre-adolescent memories: an evening when William was eight years old and his father was meant to drive him to a football match that the youngster was then to participate in, the father to watch while his son played and then drive him on to a music lesson (William had had a short-lived flirtation with the bassoon). This all entailed his father coming home ever so slightly early from work in order for this intricate plan to unfold.
“Don’t worry,” William’s mother told him when the eight-year-old William expressed fears his father would not show up at the appointed time. When the witching hour came and passed with no sign of dad, William’s mother told the young lad to wait outside, dressed in his football gear, so that when the man of the house arrived the two of them could simply push off straight away. William did as his mother suggested. And then he waited. And he waited. And he looked constantly, every thirty seconds or so, at the Mickey Mouse watch one of his uncles had got him for Christmas (on his mother’s side). Before William knew it, a worse than worst-case scenario had started to emerge; he had always thought that the old man would be late, but he had never foreseen missing the whole match. With fifteen minutes left in the game and William still stood outside of his own house in his football kit, the boy decided to call it a night. He crept back inside.
“Your father isn’t here yet?” his mother squealed, horrified. William burst out crying and she embraced him. When the tears started to dry up, she then told her son to change out of his football gear and into his street clothes, grab his bassoon and wait in the sitting room with her for dad to arrive. William followed his mother’s advice on all but one count: he decided he would wait out front again, this time with the woodwind instrument in hand. He was sure his father wouldn’t be brazen enough to miss both the football match and the music lesson. But sure enough, the time crept past on the Mickey Mouse watch, and as if in a nightmare, William found himself having to return inside the house, tears already flooding down his cheeks this time round. His mother gave him some chocolate as a placatory device and sent him to bed. William ate the treat his mother had given him and then sat in the dark, in his room, staring at the ceiling. He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep until his father had explained to him what had happened.
William was still awake half an hour later, when his father finally arrived home. His mother instantly launched into her husband for what he’d done, shouting at him as she very rarely did. William could hear everything his mum was saying, but could only make out the odd word or two from the old man as he tried to soothe his wife with a calming voice. William’s mother insisted he go upstairs that instant and speak to his son. William heard his father begrudgingly agree. The boy’s heart stopped in his throat as he heard his father’s footsteps coming up the stairs. As his bedroom door opened, William thought briefly about pretending to be asleep, an impulse based on fear of the truth, but then realised how silly this would be.
“What can I say? I forgot all about it,” William’s father said in a callous voice as he sat down on the corner of his son’s bed, positioning the absolute minimum of his gluteus maximus upon the mattress that would still allow him to keep balanced. The boy tried to think of something to say to his father but became immediately stuck; the situation called for him to be able to voice more of the complex feelings he was having than he was actually capable of doing at his age. Instead he started to cry again, sobbing uncontrollably this time, something he had sworn to himself he wouldn’t do, thus setting up a lifetime of not being able to control his emotions in front of the old man. His father then abruptly departed from his bedroom, leaving him to sob himself into a stupor.
“I can’t stay for the evening session, I’m afraid,” said William’s father, waking William up from his reverie about crying himself to sleep when he was eight. He watched as Murray, the Lancashire batsman who was still at the crease, ignored the last ball of the afternoon session. “Have to be at the hospital.”
William tried to clutch at the straw his father had just offered him.
“What is it tests? Or chemo?”
“Let’s go,” William’s father said, ducking the question.
The two men left Lord’s via the exit in front of the Captain’s Lounge. During the walk towards Warwick Street tube the two men said nothing whatsoever to one another. When they arrived at the entrance, William’s father was simply going to walk straight into the underground station, without even saying goodbye to his son, or at least it seemed that way to William. He laid his hand on the old man’s shoulder to halt his progress, a move that felt instantly alien.
“Come here, dad,” William said, and as his father turned back towards him, an out of the blue impulse overcame the younger man. William threw his arms around his father, hugging him tight. As he held the man who had missed his childhood football match and subsequent bassoon lesson so callously when William was a child, he noticed for the first time just how thin and frail the old man was; just how much of his seeming bulk was made up simply of extra layers of clothing he wore these days, obviously to hide the true extent of his illness from those around him. A thought popped into William’s head then, as he held onto his clearly not long for this world father: I really don’t want him to die. However much William disliked him, and he disliked him very, very much, he still loved the old man. Whatever he had wished for in the past, secretly or not, William knew that he wanted to face his father’s death as far into the future as fate would allow.
He withdrew from his father’s personal space, thinking that the old man would then simply nod, turn around and walk away. And that would be that. Only instead, William’s father smiled, ever so slightly, and said to his son the very last thing William had expected to hear that day.
“You know, I’m proud of you, my boy. You’ve made a good life for yourself,” William father said, averting his eyes from his son’s as he said it. He then bent his head down towards the pavement and without looking up again, the old man turned around and started to walk towards the tube station entrance.
“And that wife of yours, Alison, whatever her name is.”
William found himself more moved by his father’s remark than he would have previous thought possible – the one about being proud of him, not the ritual forgetting of his wife’s moniker – much to his chagrin. No matter how poor your relationship with either of your parents ever got, something about them expressing satisfaction over what you had achieved in life always seems to mean something. They can always get to you, one’s parents, however much you try to kill the feelings you have of them inside yourself.
William watched his father slowly disappear down the steps to the tube station, like a boat dipping as it crosses the horizon. When the old man had completely disappeared from William’s sight, the younger man turned away from the tube entrance himself, walking towards Maida Vale where he would catch a bus home. Thoughts of his father vanished remarkably quickly and all William could think about was how much he was looking forward to being back at home, where Angie would greet him with a kiss and ask him just how horrible the day had been, despite surely having had her hands full herself with the two older ones and the newborn (who was teething) to juggle. He would tell her about the Taliban comment, and the two of them would have a laugh about it over a glass of wine, and William knew he would instantly feel better about everything.