Thursday, 8 February 2007

Chapter 19

Harry and Adam walked through the chilly, drizzling rain to the taxi cab office around the corner from Harry’s flat. He was a regular there, so Maud, the elderly woman who sat behind the window in the cramped waiting room, with its yellowing walls and torn posters, glanced up only briefly over her half-rimmed glasses as they pushed open the door. “You found my princes yet, Harry?” she asked, as she continued drawing circles on a word search.

Harry smiled. Maud’s father had told her, when she was a little girl, that she was descended from Welsh royalty. Sixty years later, she still hoped someone would find the link back to the dynasty that had ruled whole swathes of Wales many centuries ago. Harry had promised he’d do some digging for her, when he had some free time, but had never quite gotten around to it. They should make bumper stickers for folk like Maud, Harry mused: “My other tree contains royalty”.

“Taxi for the Park, please, Maud,” he said, and she’d pressed the switch on the radiophone and called for a free cab. A couple of seconds later, the radio crackled and a voice Harry recognized said: “Two minutes, Maud.”

Harry and Adam took a seat, Harry gripping the folder he’d picked up from home and scanning the posters on the opposite wall, Adam wondering (not for the first time) why his uncle Harry was the only adult he knew who didn’t drive a car.

The taxi soon drew up outside. “See you, Maud,” Harry shouted, as they left the office, but she was too busy circling words to acknowledge him.

Harry climbed into the front of the cab, with Adam and his bag on the back seat. The driver pulled away, before turning to his passenger and saying: “How’s it hanging, Harry? You going to Carrie’s?” Harry had known Jimmy for as long as he’d lived in Rock Ferry. It was a small cab company, with only half a dozen drivers, so it hadn’t taken long to get to know them all. Jimmy, he knew, would be quick, taking the flyover past the town centre and then skirting the park to Carrie’s house. “Things are well, Jimmy. You get that magazine I sent you?” Jimmy had always been interested in Harry’s job, fascinated that someone could make a living out of poring over old records, linking people to their past. He never understood the fascination some people seemed to have with their past. ‘Life’s too short to worry about all that’ was Jimmy’s approach. Nevertheless, Harry hadn’t given up persuading him to think about his family history. Just last week, he’d sent Jimmy a back-copy of a genealogy magazine he subscribed to, with a feature on Victorian handsome cab drivers. “Yeah, I got it. Interesting reading, Harry. But it still doesn’t make me want to dig up my old granddad!” He was laughing, generously, as he spoke.

Harry was fascinated how some people seemed to have not one jot of interest in how their lives had been formed, of the struggles of former generations to raise families, sometimes against great odds. The same kind of people, he knew, sneered at family historians for the time and energy they devoted to the dead and gone. But Harry knew that the minute a will was disputed, or as soon as there was a hint of someone rich or famous in their family past, they’d come running to Harry for help.

Within a few minutes, the battered old Mondeo, with its lurid, yellow sign proclaiming ‘Rock Cabs’, was pulling up outside Adam’s home. Just about the same time, a blue people carrier crawled up behind it, and out piled Adam’s younger brothers, followed swiftly by their mother.

“Good timing, Harry,” she said, easily, and she reached into her handbag. “Here, let me get that. It’s the least.” She paid Jimmy his fare, and the five of them walked through the open gate and up the path to the house. More of a contrast to the run-down place where Harry lived there could hardly be. It was the same, Edwardian three-storey stock housing but it had been well-kept over the years and, of course, Carrie and her family had the whole house to themselves.

The kids were soon settled at a Playstation. Harry had taken a chair at the huge oak table in the kitchen, while Carrie made the two of them a coffee.

“So, did he say much?” she asked.

“You know kids,” Harry replied. “They keep it all close these days.”

Carrie nodded, as she handed him his cup. “You know, he’s got a new woman?” Harry didn’t. Alan hadn’t mentioned anyone new, last time he called. But his brother was like that – liked to keep the big news to himself, liked to let you find these things out by accident. “Oh, didn’t I tell you?” he would no doubt say, with his usual nonchalance, if Harry were to ask him about this new partner when they next talked.

Carrie sat down at the table, opposite him, cradling her coffee in both hands, elbows spread on the table. “Yes. Someone you know, apparently, He told me about her when we arranged Adam’s visit.” She was waiting for a reaction from Harry – any reaction, like a spider waiting for the first tiny movements on its web; but none showed. ‘OK, Mr Harry McFry, all cool and uninterested’, she thought, ‘let’s see how you like this one:’ “It’s Ana’s sister.”

Harry winced. That was all he needed to know. His little kid brother living with the sister of ‘the one that got away’. As if his life wasn’t bad enough just now, his had-it-all, threw-it-all-away brother was now enjoying life with the next best thing to heaven, the younger sister of his one true love.

Carrie caught his agony, but it was not the reaction she’d wanted. Truth was, though she would never admit it, she carried a flame herself for Harry McFry. What she wanted to hear was some sort of disclaimer, something from Harry that said ‘that’s all in the past and it doesn’t bother me’. Instead, she knew that Harry had never really stopped loving Ana, and if she needed proof it was etched all over the face she studied now, so intently. Harry took a gulp of his coffee, and stood up quickly. “Gotta go, Carrie. I’m in the middle of something right now. Thanks for the coffee.” And he reached for the file of papers on the table.

Carrie’s chair scraped against the flags on the kitchen floor as she stood up, too. “Harry – why don’t you come round for dinner this Friday? It’d be good for the kids to have you around.” She wasn’t above using Harry’s love of his nephews to get what she wanted.

“Sure, Carrie. That sounds good. I’ll be there.” And with that, he was out of there.


In the unlikely event that Dr Dacre Lawrence were ever to meet Jimmy the cab driver, and if the subject ever got around to family history, then they would find they had a lot in common. Dacre Lawrence had little time for his family’s past. That’s not to say he hadn't loved his parents – thankfully, the people who can say that and really mean it are few and far between – but he had no respect for where they came from, or what they had believed in. He remembered his father as a book-lover, a devourer of novels who relished his weekly visit to the public library. When he died, Dacre had spent weeks negotiating with the customer service departments of book clubs his father was a member of, trying to persuade them that they should stop sending their interminable supply of ‘books of the month’. His mother was, so far as he was concerned, a quiet, self-effacing woman who took pride in ‘keeping a clean house’. His parents had met after the war and Dacre had been the only product of their marriage, raised in a small town in Yorkshire where his father worked in a factory. His mother had died when he was in his mid- twenties, but he knew she had been proud to see him finish his training, and set out on a career that would help humanity so much. His father, who had survived her by another twenty years or so, got to see the real Dacre as he matured into his role as a general practitioner. Those early traits of disdain for common folk, which he’d seen in his son as he went, first, to grammar school and then, to Oxford, seemed to strengthen as Dacre grew older. As time wore on, the pair came to develop a mutual disrespect for each other which meant that Dacre Lawrence restricted his visits to see his father to birthdays and Christmas time – fleeting visits to drop off a card and a present. That was enough, for each of them, to maintain family ties.

To Dacre Lawrence had fallen the wretched task of disposing of his father’s effects when he died. All those boxes of books, parceled up and taken to charity shops. And then those papers! What on earth were they, Dacre had wondered, and where had they come from? He’d opened a few of the box files he’d found in the spare room of the same house he’d grown up in. He’d known nothing of these, as a child – or maybe they had been there all along, and he simply hadn’t had the curiosity to look or to ask what they were. The boxes seemed to be stuffed full with articles, closely carbon-typed on thin, flimsy paper, all from the days before the war. What they were doing in his father’s possession, he would never know.

The difference between Dacre Lawrence and you, gentle reader, or I, is that we could never have cast aside such precious records as those. But for Lawrence, just at that time, they were just so much ‘stuff’ to be gotten rid of, and three trips to the municipal waste tip in his new Jaguar they had taken, too.

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