The Visit – A London Short Story

fiction

The Visit – A London Short Story

by Stephen Kahn

“Try to keep calm but Tony’s outside in his new car and he wants to take you for a drive.”

Sue Woodley had come into the lounge minutes before. Her husband Donald had remained deep in an armchair barricaded behind a Sunday newspaper.

Her son had phoned his arrival from his mobile. She was in no mood to suffer one of her husband’s rages directed against their only son.

If their third child had been another girl life would have been so much easier. Donald had no idea what to demand of their daughters. Almost without him noticing Julia and Lisa had grown up to have good educations, sound jobs, and successful marriages.

Tony, however, was the black sheep of the family before he was out of primary school.

Her husband lowered his paper. More than forty years of marriage had attuned him to sense when his wife was trying to manipulate him. Where Tony was concerned that invariably meant bad news.

“Why can’t Tony take us both for a drive?” he asked as he carefully refolded the newspaper pages to their original state.

“Because I’ve got things to do before Julia comes over with the children. And anyway there wouldn’t be room. Donald…”

Her husband’s face had contorted into a grim mask of anger as he brushed passed her. She caught up with him peering through the net curtains of the hall window.

“I told him; I told him not to,” he said.

“It’s not new. It’s second-hand.”

“It’s still a bloody sports car.” Her husband only came near to swearing when he felt under extreme provocation.

“It’s something he always wanted. Don’t spoil it for him.”

“What do you mean to spoil it?” He’s not a child. He’s 30. He’s going to be a father.”

“He can afford it.”

“Not the point. Not the point at all. There’s something called responsibility.”

Woodley opened the front door, took one pace from the Welcome mat, and was frozen by the visual offence.

Sunday mornings in the quiet street of respectable terraced houses were for tidying front gardens, washing cars, and, for some, going to church. It was not for ostentatious displays of wealth that flouted the code of conformity that allowed so many families to live alongside each other in general harmony – save for the occasional noisy party, smoky barbeque, or errant tree root.

Tony would never cease to disappoint him. Now a flashy red sports car was parked outside the house and inside it was his smart-alec estate agent son.

Sue had followed him out of the house with his jacket and slipped it on her husband without him hardly noticing. When he turned she was already back in the house and the door shut.

He patted his pockets. His keys were gone. Just as he was considering whether the neighbours would notice if he tried to negotiate with Sue through the letter-box, the sports car gave a short but piecing blast on its horn.

Woodley was forced to walk toward the car to prevent any further embarrassment.

Tony Woodley watched his father march purposefully towards him. The tweed jacket and knife-edged creased trousers gave the old boy a military air. But he was tieless – a clue to his rapid departure from the house.

To his sisters, his nickname for their father was The Colonel – it seemed to fit his short temper and fussy dress sense.

His wife Jo had warned him not to go over to his father’s dressed in T-shirt and shorts. “He’d find fault if it was top hot and tails,” he had replied.

Tony had gotten out of the car and opened the passenger door by the time his father reached him. The old man looked fit to explode.

“What’s this?” he spluttered.

“A Porsche, dad.”

“I know it’s a bloody Porsche. I was driving before you were born.”

“Dad, you were over 40 when I was born.”

“Don’t get clever with me. I told you to get a sensible car. You’ve got a family on the way. What did Jo say?”

“She said I should get it out of my system.”

“Typical. But then if she’d had any sense she wouldn’t have married you.”

For an instant, Tony thought of challenging the insult but decided to let it ride. He had suffered worse.

“I bought it dirt cheap off a guy at the office. I’ll run it until Jo’s too big. Then I’ll sell and at the very least get my money back.”

“Hello, Tony. Nice motor.” Both men turned. Bill Anderson, Donald Woodley’s nosy neighbour had come out of his house.

“Thanks, Mr. Anderson.”

“Come round to take your dad for a spin?”

“That’s the idea, isn’t it, pop?”

Woodley felt trapped. Escape lay in only one direction. With a grunt, he tried to get into the car.

Tony was surprised at how stiff his father had become. He had to steer his waist to get the dip and sideways shuffle right so the old boy’s backside hit the middle of the passenger seat. As he pulled the safety belt around his father, he noticed too he was thinner than he ever remembered.

Any sympathy evaporated with his father’s withering look that said ‘get me away from here, you piece of shit.’

Mr. Anderson waved them off. Through the nets of the top floor window, Sue Woodley made a silent prayer for both the men in her life.

The last time Tony Woodley drove as carefully was on his driving test. Rather than go into town he headed for the motorway, which was only a few minutes drives from his parent’s house. He reasoned there would be less opportunity for his father to find fault with his driving.

They drove on in silence. For all the pain in his knees, Donald Woodley was enjoying the sensation of speed that came from being so close to the road surface.

“So what do you think, dad? Goes like a dream.”

“You said it. When are you going to wake up?”

“I told you it was a great deal. I’ll show a profit.”

“That’s your answer to everything. Is that how you’re going to bring your child up to always look for the angle?”

Tony kept quiet. He knew almost anything he said now would light his father’s short fuse.

He took the next exit, negotiated the roundabouts, and re-joined the motorway determined to get his father home as fast as he could and then put as much distance as possible between him and his parent’s house.

But at the prospect of having to explain to Jo why he had failed in his mission, he gripped the steering wheel and steeled himself to keep his own temper.

“Dad, it’s about the baby.”

“What about the baby? What’s the matter with it?”

Tony was taken aback by his father’s concern. “There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s just, well, if it’s a boy I and Jo would like to call it Donald.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s your name, dad.”

“Huh. What’s wrong with Jo’s father’s name?”

“It’s George.”

“I see what you mean.”

“Donald is like an in-name now,” he said hoping he wouldn’t be asked why.

“Do what you like. You always do.”

You miserable old sod, you’re supposed to be flattered, thought Tony.

His father couldn’t make sense of the suggestion. Another Donald Woodley? His thoughts were confused – until he saw a direction sign he recognized.

“Are you in any hurry?”

“I’m sorry,” Tony said automatically before checking his speed.

“Can you take the next turning off?”

“Sure, sure,” said his son pulling over sharply and earning a hoot from the car behind for the sudden manoeuvre.

Please, please, don’t let him get ill in the car. He recalled his mother’s secret bulletins about his dad’s failing health. He had never listened very carefully convinced of his father’s immortality. Now he’d be punished by having him taken ill in his car.

“What is it, dad?”

“I thought so. The cemetery’s signposted. Your nan’s buried there.  I’d like to see we’re not being sold short on the maintenance for her grave.”

His relief that he wouldn’t be called upon to attempt mouth-to-mouth outweighed his annoyance at another example of his father’s suspicious nature.

Tony reached the cemetery. The car park was almost full. A big funeral was coming to an end. A large number of mourners were starting to return to their cars. He noted how flattering black can be on young women even when they’re weeping.

“Shall I come with you?” he asked as he helped his father out of the car.

“Not dressed like that you won’t.”

It suited Tony to let the old man set off for the cemetery entrance alone. He had fond memories of his grandmother but he didn’t need to be reminded of his first funeral and the only time he saw his father cry.

He shivered despite the sunshine and got back in his car to wait.

“Sorry, mum, I haven’t been to see you for a while. But I’ve not been too well. Not well at all. I’ve got what dad had but you probably know that.”

Donald Woodley stood in front of his mother’s grave. The words were spoken silently. “The girls are well and so’s Sue. Tony? Well, you know Tony.”

He couldn’t think of anything else to say. The task wasn’t helped by a growing need to urinate. He had rushed out of the house and then not thought to have a pee in the Gents at the cemetery gates.

The grave looked well enough cared for. He pulled out a few blades of grass. “Bye, mum, I’ll be seeing you, one way or another.”

He had intended to return to the car via the toilets but he had a sudden wish to see his father’s grave.

“Bury me as far away from your dad as you can,” had been his mother’s dying wish. So it wouldn’t be easy. His father had died many years earlier and Woodley had only been back once before.

At about the same time that his father was heading deeper into a field of headstones, Tony Woodley was finishing a phone call to his wife.

He had told her he’d brought up the subject of their baby’s name with his dad.

“I felt a bit bad about it – but not that bad.”

Tony and Jo had been given every reason by the ante-natal clinic to expect that their baby would be a girl. She would be christened Catherine after Jo’s late mother.

The charade with his father had been a precaution intended to stop the old man from turning nasty over the naming of their baby once it was born.

Several times Tony had just stopped short of breaking with his father over Woodley’s rudeness about his wife and her family.

His mother feared a row over the baby-naming might be the cause of the final rift. It was she and Jo who had dreamed up the ruse hoping that by saying the baby would be called Donald if it were a boy might placate the old man.

Tony had been reluctant. But his mother had begged him to go along with the plan.

Donald Woodley found his father’s headstone. It was weather-stained and moss-covered. Could he really have been dead more than 30 years when his shout, his scorn, his cold disinterest were still so fresh in his son’s memory?

Woodley knew he would never return. He fought to find the right words but none would come. Yet he couldn’t leave with anything said.

There was no one else in sight. He unbuttoned his flies. Unlike the painful old man’s dribble he had come to expect, his urine created a perfect arc drenching the stone and the grave beneath.

It glistened in the sun and the words came. “Why couldn’t you like me?”

He walked a few paces when he had to return to the grave. “Our Tony’s car is a Porsche and he’s going to call his boy Donald.”

“You alright, dad?” asked Tony Woodley as he helped his father back in the car.

“Everything’s fine; thanks for taking me.”

Thank Christ, I can do something right, though Tony was relieved to be heading back to his parent’s house.

When he arrived he parked behind his sister’s Golf and again hauled the old man to his feet. This time his father winced with pain.

The two men faced each other. Father and son.

“Coming in?”

“No, I better be off. Jo’ll be waiting.”

Donald Woodley watched his son go round to the driver’s door and climb into the car. He knew he should say something about naming the baby after him.

He tapped on the glass. Tony lowered it. His father bent awkwardly to face him through the open window.

“Yes, dad?”

“I wanted to say. The car. It’s a good runner.”

“Thanks.”

Tony watched his father limp slowly up the path back towards the house. The front door opened and outraced his nephew and niece, Julia’s children.

For a moment he thought they were coming to admire the Porsche but to his surprise, they grabbed hands with the old man and gently led him back home.

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