Reasoning: A Short Story by Rob Mimpriss
They coppiced the hazel late that year. The sap, already rising, bubbled where he cut, leaving its mellow stain on the edge of his billhook. Later, carrying brash to the fire, the fresh wood cracked and whistled in the heat, and the young buds flared up brilliantly.
That afternoon he drove through spring pastures to Lôn Fodolydd to visit the Parrys. They were a family he had lodged with five years ago, and every so often they pressed him to dinner. Laurence parked, and crossing the garden saw their youngest daughter, Gwenllian, sitting by her open window listening to pop music he did not know.
Three years ago, at her tenth birthday party, he had organised a game for Gwen. Her sister, Nest, had led her blindfold into the room to meet Lord Nelson: to touch his peg leg, hear his heart, and finally place her finger in the socket of his eye. That autumn Nest had left to study music in London, and Laurence had also moved into a flat of his own. Now the other sister, Fflur, was gone, and only Gwenllian was left with her parents. Of all the family, she and her father had changed least in their dealings with him. She still showed the remains of a happy affection which only adolescence was starting to cool. Watching her, he was disconcerted by her growing likeness to Nest.
Mrs Parry answered the bell. As always the homeliness of her welcome shamed him, and he felt how scanty he was in friendship and in his willingness to be known. The hall where she embraced him smelt of wax and dried flowers, and he could hear the thump, thump of music, faint from upstairs. He saw family photographs on the dresser, a certain carved Eisteddfod chair, and heard the wood pigeons cooing outside in the orchard. She noticed his circumspection, and misunderstood it.
‘Does it seem very different from when you were here?’
‘The same,’ said Laurence, ‘it’s almost completely the same. It’s like stepping back in time five years.’
‘You should have been here when Nest and Fflur were at home. That would have brought back memories.’
‘Is Guto home yet? Does he still complain about work?’
‘He’s where he always is before dinner. Go and say hello; he’ll be pleased to see you.’
He saw through the stratagem, and it made him smile. Guto needed daily release for his strength, or its pressure built up in other people’s lives: he worked tirelessly on the garden, and Esyllt worried about the strain on his back. Laurence followed the path round the gable end of the house, past the sycamore with the tree-house he and Nest had built for Gwen. Guto was lifting stones to mend the back wall, and his pose was not comfortable.
When Nest left school Guto had told her he would not help her pay for her music studies unless she first stayed at home for a year, earning and saving money. The ultimatum was typical of Guto, and it was typical of Nest that she had accepted it with good grace. Laurence viewed Guto with liking and fear, and during that year his discomfort had grown as he became more involved with his daughter. Now Guto shook his hand, and welcomed him in English. In the pasture new mothers watched their lambs contentedly.
‘Is dinner ready? Am I wanted?’
‘I think she’d be happy if you stopped working.’
Guto lifted a stone into place. Topped with wire, it was something a lamb might treat with respect. ‘Have you plans for the garden?’ Laurence asked him.
‘I’m not doing as much as last year. I pruned the trees, and I want more at the front of the house – maybe St John’s wort or honeysuckle. Keeping these out–’ he patted the wall ‘–is keeping me busy.’
‘No new apple trees?’
Guto smiled. ‘I’m forbidden. Not even one.’
‘It’s probably as well,’ said Laurence.
He had been crouching opposite Guto, but he sat down with the cold stone to his back, while angled sunlight cast shadows through the trees. Now Esyllt was calling Guto to his shower and sending Laurence upstairs to bring Gwenllian to the table. It was part of her hospitality that she would want him to see as much of his old home as he could. He took the hint and carried on down the landing, past Fflur’s door and Nest’s to his own room. The doorknob still stuck. The armchair he had used on so many evenings was still tucked in the corner. It was Nest who had drawn him into the family, finding, in his neutral sympathy, her own strength to face its tumults. He stood in the doorway, seeing his old life in the marks on the wall, until Gwen yelled at him cheerfully for dinner and he went down.
It was a starter Laurence had first made for the Parrys, which Esyllt now regarded as ‘his’: lightly grilled salmon served on top of salad, with a dressing made from fish oil and honey of rather cloying sweetness. The choice niggled him like their ease in English, their tactful restraint from prayer. He found and held Nest’s quiet gaze from the sideboard as Esyllt reached across and filled his glass with fruit juice.
Guto said, ‘What did you learn in school today, Gwen?’
She giggled and looked to her mother for relief. Finding none she picked up her glass and drained it, while Guto waited with a sternness even Laurence found alarming. He said, to help her, ‘How’s the oboe going?’
‘The orchestra’s doing Peter and the Wolf. I’m supposed to audition.’
‘So have you been practising?’ said Guto. The child looked almost afraid. ‘What were you listening to earlier?’
‘Atomic Kitten. It’s only a pop group, dad.’
‘I’m taking it off you till the audition’s over.’
It was a significant moment. He examined them, looking for calm dispute as in Nest’s day, rebellion as in Fflur’s. But Gwenllian picked up her fork, her nervousness forgotten, and Esyllt asked Laurence questions about his work. He found himself discussing a piece of wetland nearby which was drying out quite naturally, but which ecologists were trying to preserve. It seemed wrong to Laurence, when land which had been artificially drained was returning to its natural state – it felt authoritarian and intrusive.
While the women were in the kitchen, serving, he had time to regret his remark. He had no reason to fear that Guto had noticed, and Esyllt was slow to find fault. But he worried about Gwen, who was clever enough to pick up on his comment, old enough to make use of it.
He had felt the same quiet awkwardness when he was lodging with the Parrys. While Nest was serving her time before college, and Fflur was challenging her father before he laid down the same law for her, he had come to feel that his own insecurity was causing her to rebel. He had rights as a lodger which could not be opposed, but he had used them with forbearance, and Fflur thought him weak. Now he watched Gwenllian bring lamb from the kitchen and offer it to her father first, who kissed her and sent it to their guest. She served him: cheerful, calm, and something he had never been, glad to be a child.
The question that would have seemed casual earlier it now felt too late to ask. They were in the living room drinking wine, and from the dining room they could hear Gwenllian playing scales and arpeggios from which emerged, from time to time, the theme she was practising. It was a difficult one, with modulations which troubled her and a sly mockery which was beyond her reach. He said, ‘Will she follow Nest’s footsteps, do you think?’
‘She wouldn’t want to,’ said Esyllt. ‘She’s being a bit independent at the moment, doesn’t want to be good at the same things as her sisters. She’s not as talented as Nest, but she’ll regret it one day, I think.’
‘And Nest? How is she getting on?’
‘She graduates this summer, and already she’s played professionally. It won’t be hard for her, finding work as a musician.’
The music broke off. Gwen came in and sat down by her mother, said ‘Ooh, wine!’ and stole from her glass. ‘Go and practise,’ said Guto.
‘Can I keep the CD, dad?’
‘We’ll have to see how well you practise.’
She caressed her mother, and left the room. But whether it was because of the wine, or because she was trying to please her father, her playing was closer and more sure, and the feeling came through more fully. At thirteen she was only four years younger than Nest when he first met her.
Later, driving home through the night’s holy chill, he wondered how well her parents understood his relationship with Nest and its failure. Esyllt, he was sure, knew most, and this explained how sparingly she even mentioned her daughter. Guto, without meaning to, had caused it to fail, showing Nest a mastery which Laurence could not reach. Meanwhile, as an advocate of her father, he had lost Nest’s affection and gained her respect, just as he had made an enemy of Fflur by his friendship with her parents. At the bottom of Lôn Fodolydd he got out of the car. A little ground-mist was forming in the dips, and a gibbous moon was rising over the hills. A woodcock called sharply through the thickening mist. His flat beckoned him with its cold consolations: beer and music and bed.