In two weeks no message was received from
Every available moment was spent acting as substitute for her frequently truant mother, who seemed not the slightest concerned over her husband's prognosis. It was Rachel who, after work, saw to her father's needs and kept him company until Amy came home, sometimes in the small hours of the morning. Except for one Friday when Rachel arrived to find her mother sitting beside her husband, holding his hand, and smiling into his eyes.
Rachel kissed her father. ‘Don't ask me,’ she said. ‘I'm the last one to be told about his movements.’ She began to unpack a bag of shopping and furnished him with the evening paper, some sporty magazines, and a library book he had begged her to get, though why he should be interested in reading about the First World War at this terrible time was beyond her.
‘Thanks, love,’ said Toby, squeezing her hand. His voice was almost a whisper.
It destroyed Rachel to see him. He was so thin. His sunken cheeks and diaphanous complexion gave him a skeletal appearance. Impulsively, she leaned across her mother to embrace him.
‘Careful of your Mum,’ cautioned Toby.
The whispered warning surprised Rachel and she looked enquiringly at her mother, seeing happiness, and a look of satisfaction about whatever it was that was wrong, or right, with her.
Amy let go of Toby's hand and sat upright, holding her head high. She gave off an exultant air as she made the announcement: ‘I'm expecting a baby.’
The silence heightened as her parents waited for Rachel to speak, but her chaotic mind was unable to grasp the full extent of the disclosure. All she could think of was that, at forty-three, her mother was too old to be pregnant and therefore must be mistaken.
Toby touched her arm. ‘Isn't it wonderful, Rachel?’
His words brought questions bubbling to the surface, the first being directed at her mother: ‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course I'm sure.’
Toby said: ‘Don't fret, Rachel. I'll live long enough to see my son born.’
His reference to his life expectancy sent Rachel to the brink of despair but for her father's sake she adopted a perfunctory attitude. Swallowing hard, she asked her mother: ‘When ... how far gone are you?’
‘Three months. There's time enough for you to start knitting.’
Rachel glanced at her father. ‘I won't be the only child any more.’
‘You'll always be my little girl,’ Toby whispered, and looked decidedly concerned when Rachel burst into tears.
TOBY did not live to see the birth of his son. He died three weeks later, on a Monday morning, two days after his forty-fifth birthday. It was Gary who broke the news.
Cynthia was in full flow, reporting on a weekend shopping spree, describing in detail the nursery paper she had purchased. Rachel was watching her sketch the outline of a Micky Mouse mobile which Curtis had chosen to hang over the crib, when the telephone rang. She moved to answer it.
Her stomach flipped at the sound of his voice. Puzzling over why he was calling, she waited for him to carry on.
‘I'm afraid I've got some bad news,’ he said, in a funereal voice. It told her everything. It did not occur to her to ask how he knew.
EVEN though Rachel was in a state of shock, Cynthia made her leave the office straight away, assuring her that she would tell Ralph the news. Rachel made the short journey home in a trance, unable to assimilate the actuality of her beloved father's death - and so quickly, without the chance to come together with his child. She felt warmth in the air, the first indication that winter was drawing to a close, the time of year her father loved. Every spring he made the same comment: Days like this inspire me to look forward to the rest of the year. The sense of loss was hard to bear.
Gary and Amy were sitting in the front parlour when she arrived. Poker-faced, he rose to greet her, while Amy continued to dab her red eyes with a handkerchief, hardly noticing that her daughter was there. Rachel stood at her side, incapable of reaching out to her, to give and receive the comfort they both needed.
Two of the neighbours were in attendance, giving Amy tea, and asking, ‘Wouldn't she rather lie down. Their ministrations, while appreciated, served to irritate Rachel. She badly wanted to cry but could not bring herself to do so in front of virtual strangers.
Dramatically, Amy waved her arms in the air and wailed, ‘Where are you, Toby.’
What about me, thought Rachel, who also needed pitying. He was her best friend, but she couldn't share that with neighbours. Without a word to anyone, she left the house and walked unsteadily towards the pub.
Harry Bentine was shooting words directly into the very deaf ear of Tom Brett, the neighbour who once did fire watching with Toby. The beery smell hung heavy, making Rachel want to cover her nose with her hand. Harry's face lit up when he saw her and he beckoned her over. ‘On your own, Rachel? Where've you left your Dad, then?’
The tears came at last, great tortured sobs racking her body. Immediately, Harry rushed round the bar and enveloped her in his strong arms, pressing her head against his velvet waistcoat, as Eric had done. ‘Could I use your phone, Harry?’ she stammered, needing Eric more than ever before.
GARY and Rachel stayed at the house until the funeral, sleeping together on an improvised bed, in order to keep an eye on Amy who had developed a penchant for hysteria, sudden bouts of tearfulness interspersed with uncontrollable laughter.
Rachel looked out at the cloudless sky as they waited in the parlour, with family and friends, for the cars to arrive. It was incredibly stuffy. An excessive fire blazed in the grate, a kindly touch provided by one of the half-dozen neighbours roped in to help with refreshments, not realising the day would warm up. There was a low drone of conversation as people talked in small groups. With the exception of her mother, who threw out long moans to win back any wavering attention, the others spoke indistinctly as if an edict had been issued about not using regular voices.
Amy and her retinue graced the long settee and Rachel watched them with disgust, remembering the occasions when Amy certified those same women as riffraff, declaring them unfit to associate with. She recalled how her father refused to comply, drinking beer in the pub with the husbands of the so-called rabble families, and the arguments that followed his defiant conduct: punch-ups, knife-slinging, and the withdrawal of marital privileges on her mother's side; supplication and appeasement on her father's.
And she dared to show regret for his passing.
AT THE CREMATORIUM, Rachel heard very little of the minister's address, cutting off to relive the growing-up years, recollecting the advice her father gave, the friendship he offered, chastisements when needed. All the things the new baby would miss.
The minister concluded the service and the last hymn began. Rachel's voice wavered as she tearfully watched her father's coffin glide through purple velvet curtains, and the curtains close behind it. It was over. Toby Skinner had gone.
Suddenly, Amy rushed from the pew with her arms extended as if she meant to part the curtains and follow, loudly screaming, ‘Take me with you, Toby.’
Mourners gossiped in whispers as