To be honest I regretted saying I’d go and see him. It was already ten and I’d things to do. Parking was the usual nightmare and I’d had to leave the car three streets away. I only had enough change for an hour and the walk would eat into that. There didn’t seem much point.
I rang the bell, then remembered to knock so he’d hear. I wrapped the plastic bag around the box and stood it by my feet. It was a long wait before the door opened.
“Hello Si.” He stood there, smiling in his fawn cardigan blocking the hall. His face a mixture of astonishment and pride.
“Hi Dad.” There was the usual fumbled handshake and part-embrace before I was able to ease past into the sitting room. The card I’d sent was tucked behind the mirror.
“Shall I put the kettle on?” he asked.
“No time, I’m afraid Dad, I just dropped in to say hello…”
“Oh.” He stood in the doorway looking deflated. It had only been three, or maybe four, weeks but he seemed shorter. The grey hair plastered more thinly across his scalp. One of the chestnut buttons on his cardigan was missing. The familiar guilt stirred in my chest. It ought to feel good to see him. Feel like coming home.
“Happy Birthday,” I said, holding out the bag. “Sorry it’s late. It’s been a bit hectic.”
“Single Malt.” For a moment he looked troubled. “Expensive though, Si?”
“Should keep the cold out, eh?”
The ponderous tick-tock of the mantelpiece clock reminded me I had only forty-six minutes left on the parking meter. Misinterpreting my gaze, Dad crossed the room and picked up the silver frame beside the clock.
“It’s a good one of your Mum. Don’t suppose you remember when that was taken?” Here we go, I thought.
“Dad, I…” I wasn’t really sure what I was going to say. I just needed to stop him before he dragged me off down memory lane.
“Yes, I’m sorry. You’re in a hurry.” He replaced the picture, angling the frame so it could be seen from his armchair. There were brown liver spots on the backs of his hands. “Hm.” A wistful sound, somewhere between contentment and a sigh. The sound he always made when he thought about Mum.
I checked my watch.
“That’s nice. Is it new?”
“Patek Philippe. Swiss. Cost me an arm and a leg.”
“You always wanted my watch when you were a kid. I thought –”
I laughed and immediately wished I hadn’t.
“No. I suppose not.” He took a breath. “Things still going well, then.”
“I get by.” I said and felt cheap as soon as the words were out of my mouth.
Tick-tock. We looked at each other, straining for something to say.
“Oh! I’ve got something for you. Might come in handy. In the shed, I think.”
“Dad, I really…”
“It won’t take a minute.” He was already limping towards the kitchen. “If I can only lay my hands on the key.”
I followed him out into the unkempt garden, fighting off the feeling that I ought to offer to cut the grass or something. It took him an age to fit the key into the padlock on the shed door.
“Mind your head.”
The large shed was musty but well lit by the strip light he’d put in. Full of the detritus of hobbies adopted and abandoned. Some small tools lay on the workbench. There was a mound of old sawdust under the vice.
“Keeping yourself occupied,” I said.
Dad didn’t answer, he just cast about him until I began to think he’d forgotten why we’d come. Then he stooped and pulled out a crumpled supermarket bag containing something bulky. Twenty nine minutes left on the parking meter.
“I don’t know if you’ve got any use for these. I know you’ve got your own, but I thought they might do you as spares.”
I pulled open the plastic Tesco’s bag. Inside was a pair of brown walking boots, slightly foxed but otherwise sound. One of the spotless soles was turned upwards.
“Dad! I can’t take your boots. I’ve got…”
“They’re no use to me now.” He looked down and quickly back up again. “Not with this knee. I’m OK about the house, but I can’t do long walks any more, Son.” He shrugged and his mouth lost its shape for a second. He didn’t meet my eye. I think he was afraid of what I might see there.
“As spares.” He held out the carrier bag.
I took it and examined the tongue of one of the boots. They were half a size too small, but I slipped off a shoe and tried one of them on anyway.
“Have you got enough tools, by the way?”
“Hammers? Saws? Spanners? You know. DIY.”
“I don’t really get – “I finished lacing and reached for the other boot.
“Funny,” he said. “It always used to be me. Forever busy with something. But since your Mum – “
He picked up a fretsaw that was lying on the bench, then set it down again
“Any good?” He gestured at the boots. His knuckles were swollen and I noticed for the first time that the little finger of his right hand was folded into the palm. I stamped my feet.
“Yes. Thanks, Dad. They’ll do fine.” As I pulled the laces undone I stole a glance at my watch. Fifteen minutes.
“Waterproof, too, I suppose?” My stomach lurched as if he’d caught me in a lie.
“What? Oh, yes. To fifty metres.” I slipped on my shoes and bundled the boots back into the Tesco’s bag.
“We never did manage that trip to the Peaks.”
I started making some noises about it never being too late but my heart wasn’t in it. I glanced out of the window towards the house.
“Well, I suppose you’d better be off, then,” he said, too breezily. I nodded and made what I hoped was a rueful face.
“Is there anything else in here you want?” His gesture took in the workbench and the old chest of drawers with its peeling labels.
“No, I…thanks. Look, I must get on. The meter.”
I followed him down the garden and back through the house. I can’t remember what we said. At the front door, he fumbled for my hand. His crooked little finger filled my palm. He let go of my hand and tried a smile.
“I won’t say goodbye.” He said.
I got half way down the path and looked back, but he was gone.
It was four minutes to eleven. I hammered on the door until he opened it.
“Put the kettle on,” I said.