Wednesday. 12.45 p.m.: I’m still shaking with rage when Marie pulls up into the driveway in her father’s old Metro. I’m deeply shocked by my phone conversation with Mary Bridges from personnel: the resurrection of that stupid, stupid sexual harassment charge, coupled with Mary’s unexpectedly steely tone of voice leaves me feeling completely impotent. Quite frankly, I’m totally confused: my head is telling me to really get in touch with a lawyer and pursue this matter to its fullest extent, but my instincts are telling me that I’ve already lost; Mary just seemed so sure of herself when we spoke, so in control that I just don’t know what I should do next. Luckily for me, here’s a person who will: I open the front door and move towards Marie with my arms outstretched.
The first thing that surprises me as we wrap ourselves around each other is how pleased I am to see her. She’s had her hair cut and the week away from me seems, perhaps understandably, to have done her some good: she looks younger, fresher somehow, more sharply defined. The second thing that surprises me is the overpowering feeling of love that I have for this woman: I’m realising this as I kiss her on the cheeks and on the mouth – Marie is the part of me that has been missing for the past week, I love this woman in a way that I have never loved another.
We go inside and I make Marie coffee. She sniffs a little as she enters and I’m worried for a moment that she’s picked up the scent of Ralph, but she doesn’t say anything, she just stands beside me in the kitchen, occasionally hugging my back and kissing me on the neck. Then we sit down and I prepare myself for the tortuous process of filling her in on the events of seven days in the life of John Price. Where to begin? My father? Losing my job? The Mary Bridges from personnel phone conversation? Louise? Carol? On second thoughts perhaps I’d better leave those last two out of the proceedings.
If I were a seven-year-old child running home in tears to his mum after a bad day at school, I might possibly say something like this:
…I lost my mobile phone in a service station in Exeter so I didn’t know you were trying to call me… and Michael Dean’s replacement is Margaret Blackmore from books… can you believe that? …and we had a meeting on Monday and she told me that my job was safe, she said that I was one of GP’s finest assets… and then I went into work on Tuesday and you know what? …they threw me out of the building… they only threw me out of the building… they told me they were sacking me and threw me out of the building like I was a criminal… I’ve lost my job… it was just so… so… uncivilised… and I thought of calling you but I felt too depressed… and my mother rang and she said that my father was on his death bed… so I did what you told me to do and drove down to see him… and you know what? …he told me to fuck off… yes, he told me to fuck off… so I fucked off and I drove around the coast on my own for a couple of days… and then I spoke on the phone this morning to Mary Bridges from personnel and she told me that the bastards are only going to give me six grand, which is a fucking joke… and she said that if I tried to do anything about it they’d throw that stupid sexual harassment charge in my face and they’ve got witnesses to prove it…and you know I never did it… you know I didn’t… and I only got back home last night and it was too late to respond to your telephone message so I thought I’d wait until you got home…
Except I’m not a seven-year-old child running home in tears to his mum after a bad day at school, and, omitting the pregnant pauses, editing out the dramatic rise and fall of my voice, excluding the pained expression and tortured eyes, this is, in fact, more or less what I do say to Marie as she sits looking at me in stunned silence.
And then it’s Marie’s turn to do a little confessing. She moves closer to me and wraps her arms around me once again and tells me how sorry she is. How she feels she’s let me down by running off a time like this and how she’ll never ever do it again. How much she’s missed me this past week and how much she realises we ought to be together. How she didn’t know what to think when she called my mobile phone and a strange female voice answered. How I’m not to worry about things and that she’ll get everything sorted out. Of how we’ll go and see a lawyer together and try and screw those bastards for every penny they’ve got.
Then we go up to the bedroom and make love. I lie on top of Marie, genuinely happy and relieved to be back with her fried egg breasts; glad that it’s Marie here with me now, not Louise… not even Carol…
In the afternoon Marie makes some food and we sit at the table in the kitchen together; her presence reassuring me, already, it seems, a light beginning to appear at the end of the tunnel. I tell her I’m sorry for being so nasty to her last week… I’m sorry for swearing at her all time… I’m sorry for spending far too many hours in the pub with an imbecile like Dave from accounts… that I’m sorry for not doing my share of the washing up… I’m sorry for being me…
Marie smiles at me fondly as I speak and keeps telling me that I have nothing to be sorry about, that she’s thought it all through and it’s just as much her fault as mine… that she’s inherited her bossiness from her mother… that she’ll be more thoughtful in future… that I really ought to stop apologising.
But I’m not apologising enough: because I know that if I revealed the true motivation for this uncharacteristic display of remorse then life as I know it would end in a flash of thunder and lighting that might very well shake the whole street to its foundations.
Then, in the midst of all of these dripping apologies the director calls action and the telephone rings and, to demonstrate to Marie what a changed person I am, I’m picking it up without a thought as to who might be at the other end. And I’m hearing the voice of my father:
There is a short silence, and then a quiet rasping noise can be heard at the other end of the line, like the sound of water escaping down the plug-hole. “Hello?” I say again.
Then he speaks. Notwithstanding the seven words he uttered to me on Sunday evening, my father speaks to me for the first time in twenty years and I feel the blood rush to my cheeks. Marie sits in her seat and watches my expression: it is apparent that she has a fair idea who I am talking to.
“John… cough… it’s me – your dad…” he says, his voice weak and jittery.
I say nothing for a moment. I don’t what it is I’m supposed to say.
“John… I’m calling to apologise…cough… I’m sorry about Sunday … I really regret saying what I did… I want to say sorry…”
And there we have it: for the first time in my entire life my father has just apologised to me.
“Well this is a first…” I say grimly.
“Look… cough… cough… I don’t blame you for being angry or bitter… I just want to put things right… that’s all…”
“You have a funny way of showing it…”
“Yes… yes… I know… look… this isn’t easy for me…”
I snort or laugh or tut or make some kind of noise of a similar description.
“No… no… don’t be like that… please… please… I just want to make things up to you while I’ve still got the chance.”
“Well that’s very public spirited of you…”
“Please… cough… please just listen to me for a moment…”
“Look: I’m lying here in bed right now and I’m in almost constant pain… sometimes even breathing hurts so much that I feel like packing it all in… cough… I’m getting weaker and weaker… my body is falling to bits… and if I don’t get a chance to talk to you soon I think I never will…”
But I don’t believe what he is telling me: I’m on edge, I’m expecting his mood to shift at any moment like it used to: “Why the sudden change of heart?” I ask.
“Oh… John… if you could only see things the way I see them now you’d be able understand everything…”
“Well that’s convenient for you, isn’t it?”
“If you… cough… if you call lying in bed with a cancerous growth the size of a pineapple steadily eating its way through your body convenient…”
“I’m sorry… I don’t mean to be so insensitive…”
“Neither do I…”
“I hope that any minute now you’re not going to start telling me how alike we are…”
My father gently laughs: “No… I’m not going to do that…”
I take a deep breath, then he says: “Look… John… I can’t stay on the phone too long; I just haven’t got the… cough… energy… I just want you to come and see me… will you do that for me? I know it’s a lot to ask… will you please come and see me?”
“What would be the point…?” I sigh.
“I think you know what the point would be…”
“No… I’m sorry… it’s not a good idea…”
“Look… John… what do you want me to do… do you want me to go down on my bended knees? Do want me to beg? Look… I’m just sorry… I’m sorry… the… the world is… closing in on me… and I just want to see my son before I die… I’d take the train up to London if I could but I’m not sure that I’d last the journey…”
“Why didn’t you ask me this ten years ago… twenty years ago?” I exclaim, the comment surprises me.
“Oh… cough… I don’t know… I suppose I didn’t know that I’d be sitting here dying one day … you think you’ll live forever… please… cough… won’t you come and see me? Whatever’s happened in the past I do love you, you know… you are my son…”
“What will you do?” Marie asks quietly the moment I have replaced the telephone receiver.
“I don’t have much choice, do I?” I say in resignation. “I’m going to have to go and see him, aren’t I?”
“Oh… John…” says Marie, her face lighting up with a smile. “I’m so glad…”
I’m not so glad: the truth of the matter is that I’m suddenly scared to death. I’m absolutely petrified at the prospect of going to see him again. And at the same time I’m amazed… I’m amazed at what I’ve just agreed to do. This time it didn’t take any false blackmail from someone like Carol to break down any of my barriers. All it took, I’m realising now, is for him to do what I’ve been waiting for him to do right from the very start. I look over at Marie, my guilt about the Louise and Carol incidents momentarily surfacing; she’s wearing a neat little black sweater and black jeans that make her look like a refugee from a sixties art house movie, and I’m covering my mouth with my hand and for the one time in my life the only words that will come are the absolute truth: “That’s all that I wanted…” I say dejectedly. “All he had to do was ask and I would have gone to see him straight away… all he had to do was ask.”