Ellie was up early Tuesday morning. It wasn’t hard, she had hardly slept. Jake had sent a text to say he would arrive around 11am. No ‘looking forward to it’ or ’see you then’.
She went through the house tidying where nothing was out of place, and opening and closing cupboards looking for what, she didn’t know. The downstairs bathroom would be for Jake’s sole use during his stay, and she checked again that all was clean and Scott hadn’t used it that morning. The kids wanted to stay home to meet him when he arrived, but Ellie didn’t want them there for the initial meeting and settling in.
11am came and went. He had been a stickler for time. 11.10 and sitting by the window Ellie realised her hands were clenched and damp. She stood up and went to the kitchen for a glass of water. She rinsed the glass and wiped it dry, wiping the sink as well and then folding the towel neatly over the rail. Then taking it she threw it into the basket in the laundry and replaced it with a clean one from the cupboard. 11.15 and she was back standing at the window in the lounge.
At 11.17 she watched his green sedan park neatly near the garage. This was it. This was the beginning of what could be a very difficult few months or more. She hoped it was less. She took a deep breath and opened the front door, anticipating their first meeting since her visit to the city. It was awkward. Ellie knew it would be. She stood at the front of the car while he got out, one leg, then the other, using the door to raise himself from the seat. He looked better than when she saw him a few weeks ago. His colour was stronger and new hair was beginning to hide his scar. He pulled his stick from the passenger seat and rested both hands on it. She was surprised he had driven himself, but remembered how stubborn he could be. He looked at her for a moment before nodding and limping to the back of the car.
“Let me help,” she said when he opened the boot of the large sedan. “I’ve put the kettle on. We’ll have tea when you are settled. Or coffee. Would you prefer coffee? It doesn’t matter, I have both. Tea leaves too if that’s what you prefer.” Get a grip girl, she told herself. Start the way you mean to go on.
“Thank you, tea would be welcome. I hadn’t realised how tiring the drive could be.” Jake set a large expensive suitcase on its end and extended the handle. This one he passed to Ellie. “If you would take this I can manage the others.” He indicated a smaller matching case alongside another, matching, overnight bag.
His tastes hadn’t changed, she thought pulling the case into his room. She stopped inside waiting for him to catch up. Georgia had placed a glass vase of flowers on the small table near his bed before she went to school that morning. The blue of the pansies lifted the plainness of the room. He stopped in the doorway to catch his breath and looked around.
“The bed fits well,” he said. “Thank you, if you wouldn’t mind pointing out the bathroom, I will join you for that tea soon.”
The bathroom, its fittings, were old, original to the house. What stood out was how clean everything was. The basics had been placed in there, it was plainly now solely for his use. Jake washed his hands and leaned on the basin. The mirror reflected a man floundering, out of his depth. The lines on his face were deep, his eyes red, the lids swollen. What had he done? He desperately wanted to lie down and sleep. In his own bed, in his own home. He was drowning, a long way from shore.
He splashed cold water on his face and dried it with a soft, lemon coloured towel. New. A matching towel was neatly folded on a bentwood chair near the bath. He moved it and sat down. He hadn’t thought this out. A simple business arrangement, simple. He would get well and move on. He would make sure his grandchildren had a secure future, that they were set in the right direction and he would move on. The reality was not so simple. In this house with this young woman he didn’t know; a daughter whose life was so removed from what it had once been. Suddenly he didn’t know what his next step would be.
Jake reached for his phone to call Laura but replaced it in his pocket. Bad idea. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, his hands cupping his head.
“Tea’s ready. Did you find everything ok?” Ellie called through the closed door. He jumped at the sound.
“Yes. Thank you, I’ll be right out.” He hoped his voice didn’t sound as weak as it felt. He sat through some breathing exercises designed to relax him, before standing and staring at himself in the mirror again. ‘You have fought bigger battles than this. Get a grip.’Ellie had hesitated before leaving the bathroom door, unsure if she should ask him again if he needed anything. He sounded tired, maybe the drive had been too much too soon.
‘He can take care of himself,’ she told herself, ‘ he always has.’
By the time Jake made his way back, she was perched on the edge of a chair at the table. Her legs were crossed, one foot moving in a circular motion, one way and then the other. A tray was laid with a pot of tea and two cups, a small jug of milk and a plate of sliced carrot cake. When he came in she got up.
“I thought we could have it outside, before it gets too hot,” Ellie said.
“If you don’t mind it is already too hot out there. I don’t seem to cope with the heat like I used to.” Jake sat down at the end of the small table.
Silent, Ellie poured his tea and passed him the milk and cake. She sat at the other end of the table.
“Do you take sugar? I only have raw sugar.”
“No. Thank you.”
“Try the cake. My neighbour, Avril, brought it over this morning. She’s an amazing cook.”
“I will make us lunch soon. Is there anything you can’t eat? Or shouldn’t eat? I should really make a list.”
“Don’t fuss. Please. Not on my behalf.” Jake closed his eyes briefly. “Sorry. It’s just that nothing tastes the same right now. The chemo. But it’s getting better. Improving all the time. So whatever you prepare will be fine. Thank you.”
Ellie watched him play with the cake. He had taken two bites. He leaned back in the chair and looked at her.
“Well, here we are,” he said.
“Yep.” Ellie looked away to the window. She felt herself beginning to rock slightly, chewing on her top lip. Her breathing was controlled, slow in, slow out. Finally she looked down at her hands clenched between her knees. If she let go she would explode.
“Eleanor,” said Jake. She didn’t look up. What was coming? She waited. “This tea is lovely, very welcome.”
That was it? Ellie raised her head and looked at her father long and hard. He was still handsome, his eyes dark brown, no longer looking at her. She wondered if his hair would grow back the chestnut colour it had been. But perhaps he had gone grey in the years since she left. His body was not athletic any more, that was to be expected. But he still had the ability to get a rise out of her.
“That’s it? The tea is welcome. That is all you have to say? ”
“What do you want me to say? That I am grateful for your hospitality, for your help? Well I am. Thank you.” Jake pushed the plate away, the cake barely touched. “I know this is difficult for you. It’s not easy for me either.”
“Then why? This was your choice remember? Not for the tea I think.”
“Because…because it is time. Too much has happened and I need to get a lot off my chest and I want you to listen. This way we are forced together, however unpleasant that may be, but as mature adults we will endure it and I want to think, hope, believe, that we will be better for it in the end.”
“You sound like you are preaching to a team building group. For goodness sake will you answer the question?”
“Because I nearly died. I have had a lot of idle time to think. Before something like that happens again I want to be satisfied that we tried, that I tried, to reconcile; that something good can come of our lives together despite the distance and the years apart. That I wasn’t as bad a father as I think I was.”
Ellie stood and cleared the table in silence. Always about him.
“Good luck with that,” she said at last and left the room.