For a long time there was just the noise of the traffic as they found their way through the city streets. Nick asked for directions a couple of times, and Rhys responded in just a few words: turn left here; straight on at the lights. Otherwise he had said nothing. As they crossed the Tyne Bridge, Rhys took a picture on his phone, and then settled back into his seat, his face turned away from his father. He put his earphones in. Give it time, thought Nick, his hands gripping the steering wheel.
‘There she is, second time today,’ Nick had said as they were passing the Angel of the North, but Rhys didn’t hear him, and didn’t look. Then came the featureless stretch down to Wetherby; on the M18, there was more traffic, and Nick slowed his pace. They were between Leeds and Sheffield, evening already closing in, when Rhys finally took his earphones off and looked ready to speak. Nick knew what was coming.
Nick glanced at him. ‘Much the same, I suppose,’ he said. He paused. “She says the therapy is helping her, but she doesn’t say much else about it. At least not to me.’ He pulled out to overtake a van. ‘And she’s doing a couple of evening classes. Yoga, Welsh conversation. I sometimes wonder if she’s chosen things to make sure I’m excluded.’
‘I doubt that,’ said Rhys. He looked back down at his phone.
‘How’s the course going?’ said Nick.
‘Great. Yeah, really good. Second year’s much better than the first. We’re starting to work on real infrastructure projects now. Land traffic and highways. Bridges, tunnels. Which way are we going back?’
‘We’ll go across the bridge, I think. I came the other way this morning, so I’d like a change. It’ll only add ten minutes or so. We can decide in the morning.’ It wasn’t much, he thought, but at least they had spoken.
The stopping place, once they found it, was a sprawling settlement around a road where lorries thundered; on a side road sat the square-fronted, brick pub, the Raven. But their rooms were decent enough, both overlooking a small garden at the front. The landlady, as she gave them their keys, had said that they were the only people booked in for a meal that evening, so they might prefer the bar to an empty restaurant. Their table was at the far end of a long, dimly lit bar with a coal fire burning in a grate.
‘The last days of the coal fire,’ the barman said. Pretty enough, but filthy stuff.’ He turned as the door crashed open; someone stumbled in from the rainy night. He said something to the barman that Nick couldn’t hear, and then laughed. He took his jacket off and tried to shake the wet off it. He looked down the bar towards Nick and Rhys.
‘Olé,’ he shouted, and shook his jacket again. There was something unpleasant about him, Nick thought.
He glanced at Rhys, but he was just looking at the menu. Pretending not to notice, thought Nick. After a few minutes the landlady came over and took their order. There was another burst of laughter from the man at the bar, and the landlady looked over at him and sighed. Nick expected Rhys to lapse back into silence while they were waiting for their meals, but he was wrong. Rhys spread his hands in front of him on the table.
‘Look, Dad,’ he said. ’Thanks for coming to get me. I appreciate it.’ He took a sip of his beer. ‘And I’m sorry it’s been so long. I meant to come home at Christmas, but I just couldn’t. I know it must have been hard for you and Mum, but I couldn’t face it just with the three of us.’
‘It’s all right,’ Nick said. ‘We understood.’
‘But then I thought that I was being selfish. Yeah, I was angry too, not just with Mum, but you as well. We’d always thought of you as perfect. We were devastated.’ Nick looked at his son’s hands on the table. ‘But Chrissy wasn’t just angry. After a while she was just hollow. Empty.’
'Have you heard from her?’ Nick felt his breath catching as he spoke.
‘Nothing. Nothing online, either. She hasn’t closed any accounts - she’s just not posting on them. Not for over a year. It’s like she’s…’ He paused for a moment.
‘I know,’ said Nick. ‘But we can’t think like that.’ He waited for Rhys to speak again, but he was looking over Nick’s shoulder. He was aware then of a presence behind him, and turned to see the man from the bar lurching towards them.
‘Who’s here?’ said the man. His voice was slurred, and his smile was unfriendly. ‘Who’s daring to dine at the Raven? Worst pub grub in the Midlands. Famous for it. Stacey, love, what muck are you inflicting on these poor people?’ he shouted down the room. He turned back to them. “This is a terrible pub,’ he said. ‘Take my word for it. The boss is a bastard. And she’s a bitch. Vicious as sin, the pair of them.’
“That’s enough, Kyle,’ said the landlady, bringing the plates to them. ‘I’m sorry about him,’ she said, as the man lurched back to the bar, rolling unsteadily. ‘He thinks he’s a character.’ She tried to smile, but she looked scared, thought Nick.
He had turned in early, aching after the drive. They had hardly spoken again during dinner; Rhys had reverted to a bristling silence. Nick had fallen easily into sleep. Now, though, he was woken by an urgent banging on his door. Nick groped at his watch: it was just before midnight. He stumbled to the door and opened it. Rhys was standing there, still in his clothes.
‘There’s something going on outside,’ he said. He turned and ran towards the stairs. Nick heard a shout from somewhere. He went back into his room and looked out of the window. It’s a couple dancing, he thought at first, just some people dancing, but then he saw that there were three figures slowly shuffling around, in a strange sort of intimacy. In a moment, he saw what was really happening: the drunk man, Kyle, had one hand on Stacey’s neck, and the barman was holding on to that arm, trying to pull him away. The three of them were locked in a tight, grotesque embrace. Then Nick saw the broken bottle in Kyle’s other hand.
A fourth figure came from the shadows; Nick saw that it was Rhys, stepping slowly towards the three figures, talking softly as he moved, his hands open in a gesture of calm. Kyle shouted something, lurched against the others viciously; but then, as Rhys continued to talk to him, he pulled away. He stood with the broken bottle in his hand, glaring at them. He swung his arm at them viciously. Rhys stepped between him and the couple; he squatted, making himself small, still talking softly, his hands now turned upwards as if carrying a weight. They stayed like that for a long time, it seemed, Rhys talking quietly, until suddenly Kyle sat down, his head bent forward. His shoulders were shaking. Nick wondered whether he was laughing or crying.
The next day Rhys got into the car without speaking. Once they were back on the motorway, Nick broke the silence.
‘What you did last night was remarkable,’ he said. ‘And courageous. I’d no idea you had a gift as a peacemaker. Extraordinary.’
‘It’s not really a gift,’ Rhys said. ‘It was just an instinct.’ He looked across at his father. ‘I thought you were coming down to help.’ Nick looked back at him and saw the accusation - or maybe it was his own shame making him imagine this, he thought.
They reached the Severn Crossing a couple of hours later. Nick tried to see its soaring, audacious elegance through his son’s eyes. The tide was low: on the right they looked towards the old Severn Bridge; on the left an expanse of mud and sand.
‘It looks as if you could walk across,’ said Rhys. Nick looked at the huge river basin, the mud almost gold in the clear morning light. It was beautiful and treacherous.
Michael Ponsford was born in Cardiff. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Residence at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, before a career as an English and Creative Writing teacher. He has published poetry and short stories in several small press journals, as well as stories for children with Gwasg Gomer. He is now blissfully retired in Pembrokeshire, where he belongs to a writers’ group and volunteers with the local theatre’s film society.
He is also a walker, gardener, swimmer and kayaker.
He is married with four far-flung grown-up children.