YOU CAN SEE FRANCE FROM HERE
"I’ve lost the use of my legs, not my effing brain," my father yelled, his bony fingers snatching the keys from the desk. Propelling himself towards the corridor in the direction of our rooms, he yelled at me, "Come on Betty, move your fat arse."
My heart sank even as the colour rose to my cheeks. Mouthing a silent "Sorry" to the Receptionist, I picked up our suitcases and staggered after him. Jeez, I thought, what on earth sort of holiday is this going to be? Although I already knew the answer.
"I’ll bang on the wall when I want you," he said, swinging his chair round as I put his case on the bed.
"I’ll pop back in half-an-hour," I said, not wanting him to call the shots on our first day.
"What a shit-hole," he said. "I’ve seen more comfortable doss-houses."
I shook my head and retreated. I had lived all my life in fear of my father. Meanness shrouded him like a cloak and spitefulness came more naturally to him than breathing. The phone call from the nursing home, where he had lived since my mother died, well, more accurately, gave up living, had not come as any surprise to me.
"You’ll have to make other arrangements," the Matron told me. "We’ve given him plenty of warnings and second-chances, but as you know many of our staff are young girls. We take verbal abuse very seriously. I’m afraid he’ll have to go."
Despair rose inside me. "He’s an old man," I said. "Surely you can make some suitable arrangements for him."
"I’m sorry. He’s upset the other residents too. We can’t have him here any longer. Perhaps he could come and stay with you…"
I shuddered at the thought. Of course she was right. If anyone, seeing the wheelchair, thought him frail they were in for a rude awakening. Arthritis may have crippled him but it had not lessened his power to put the fear of God into anyone who displeased him.
"It may take some time," I said, meekly.
"End of the week," she said, and put the phone down. Hence the holiday on the Isle of Wight. I thought it would at least give me time to make other arrangements for him.
"It will be an adventure," I told him. "A chance to re-visit the places where you spent your childhood."
"An adventure? Well, anything’s got to better than stagnating in this smelly rat-hole."
So I booked us into The Lobster Pot. A small hotel on the front at Sandown.
My heart lifted when I saw the hotel. It looked warm and welcoming. Colourful hanging baskets, overflowing with pink and red geraniums adorned the white-washed walls. Half-barrel planters on the terraces brimmed with ballerina fuchsias and pelagoniums and on the blue-painted window sills, boxes of bright pink begonias beamed at us. The overall effect was a symphony of red, white and blue.
The smell of roasting meat greeted us as we entered, bringing a rush of saliva to my mouth. If the cooking smells were anything to go by, at least we’d be well fed.
Dinner on the first night went without incident and I began to think that perhaps he’d mellowed over the years. Perhaps, if it came to it, I could have him at home with me. I lived alone, Mum had managed him, why shouldn’t I? My cheerful optimism didn’t last long.
Every morning, as the pale sunlight crept over the windowsill in the small dining room, he’d manoeuvre his chair to block the gangway. Then he’d make a big fuss as people tried to squeeze past. I could see the flash of satisfaction in his eyes as people offered their apologies. I cringed as he loudly criticised whatever was put in front of him, pushing the plate away, like a petulant child. I’m not sure which was most embarrassing, watching him eat or listening to him whining that it was inedible.
Once we got outside things improved. I pushed him along the promenade, overlooking the bay.
"We used to come here every year, when I was a child," he said, with that smile that was so rare I didn’t recognise it. "Did I tell you how I won the raft race every year, youngest competitor too. And I could outswim boys much older than me. Outrun them too."
I had heard all his stories and grown up with his exploits even as they had grown over the years, expanding with every telling. Now, I thought, he had little left but the memories.
"'Course it’s all different now," he said. "Milk-sops and mummy’s boys, computer games and television. No spirit of adventure, young lads today. Not like in our day. My Dad used to beat me with a strap. Wouldn’t do these kids any harm to feel a bit of leather across their backsides."
The first three days the weather disappointed, with pearl grey skies threatening rain. Still, every day I drove out to one of the resort towns, parked and settled him in his chair for long bracing walks along the sea-front promenades. My hands numbed, turning blue as I pushed the chair against the bitter blast and my eyes watered, but he was impervious to my discomfort. I’d gaze enviously at the holidaymakers huddled in the warmth of their cars parked on the front. He’d take a warming swig from his silver hip flask. Things generally improved after that.
On the fourth day the weather improved and our walks became more enjoyable. He talked about his holidays as a child, running down to the beach everyday, chasing butterflies and calling to seagulls as they swooped and dived for the bread he threw for them a long time ago under a summer sky. Sailing, rafting and canoeing, he re-lived them all; the toughest and bravest adventurer on the sea. But after a while the reminiscences only served to remind him of his deteriorating condition and the meanness returned.
"Changed beyond recognition," he moaned. "Trashy commercialism and opportunistic rubbish," he’d say as we walked along past amusement arcades, with their flashing neon lights and the constant crash of money dropping through the slot machines. The smell of hot-dogs and onions mingled with doughnuts and candy floss and I wished we could stop just for a while to breathe in the lively vibrant atmosphere. I thrilled to the hurdy-gurdy music of the rides and the calls of the stall-holders and bingo-callers. If only things were different, I thought, what a lovely holiday we could have.
"Shit-holes. Everywhere’s turned into a shit-hole," he’d announce and my stomach would curl in turmoil lest I incur his further displeasure by tarrying too long. He wasn’t above using his cane to hurry me along.
We stopped in a small café on the pier at Ryde for a cup of tea. I wheeled him to a window where he could look out and watch the sailboats. At the counter, waiting to be served, I recognised the man stood in front of me from the hotel. A bear of a man with silver grey hair and a matching beard, he turned and smiled as I joined the queue behind him. Early fifties but fit, he was. I bet he works out, I thought.
"Hi, You're staying at the Lobster Pot too, aren’t you? How are you enjoying your holiday?"
"Better now the weather’s improved," I said, mortified at the memory of his daily embarrassment, trying to squeeze past Father’s wheelchair.
"My name's Jim. Jim Baxter." He held out his hand.
His hand enveloped mine, a soft warmth that spread through me like melting butter.
My heart raced. "Betty," I said, "Betty Carraway."
"Your father is it?" he nodded towards the window where father sat glaring at us.
I nodded, unable to summon my voice from its hiding place.
"Well, have a nice day," he said, turning away with his cup of tea and strawberry scone. I couldn’t help but notice how tanned his face was and the way his blue eyes twinkled.
Father became surly after the tea incident. Nothing pleased him. Then he developed chest pains and insisted that I sit with him, reading to him to calm his shattered nerves. "Not that you give a damn," he sneered accusingly. "Things will be different when I come to live with you," he said. "There’ll have to be changes."
On our last day we went to St. Catherine’s point. The sun shone and the day was warm.
"You can see France from here," Father said, as we drove into the car park at the bottom of a steep hill. I manhandled him into his chair, making sure he wore his cap against the sun. I pushed him up to the front where we stopped to look out across the English Channel. At the foot of the cliffs the sea eddied and flowed into rock pools filled with seaweed where children netted crabs. Families played on the beach in the bright sunshine, laughing and splashing in the rolling waves, jumping over the white foam as it broke against the shore. It looked so happy and normal that I felt a pang of regret, my chest heaving for what might have been.
"Can’t see France from here, stupid. Get us up to the top of the hill."
I turned the chair and pushed it across the car park. Just as I was taking a breath, ready to begin the long slog up the hill, I felt a presence at my side. It was Jim, materialised from nowhere, carrying a rucksack.
"Can I help?" he said
"No you can piss off," father replied. "She can manage."
Jim laughed, his gaze travelling appreciatively over my ample frame. His lips parted in a grin exposing perfect white teeth. I felt a tingle down my spine.
"It’s no trouble," he said and pushed the chair quickly up the hill as if it was nothing at all. He was wearing khaki shorts and light brown walking boots and I stared wistfully at the hairs on his muscular, tanned legs, turned golden by the sun.
At the top of the hill he swung the chair onto a concrete plinth marking the viewpoint. "Glorious view," he said looking straight into my eyes.
The breeze tousled his hair. He held my gaze far longer than was prudent and I could feel my skin reddening.
"Can’t see a bloody thing," Father said.
Reluctantly, I turned to look out across the sea. "Over there, isn’t that it?" I pointed at a slight darkening on the horizon.
"Don’t be so bloody daft woman, there’s nothing there."
I could feel the irritation rising at the sound of Father’s voice. If it hadn’t been for the pounding in my ears I’d have sworn that my heart had stopped beating.
Jim shook his head. "Well, I’ll love and leave you," he said. "Have a nice day. Might see you later?" his eyebrows rose and I nodded, holding my breath in case father saw but he was fiddling in his blanket, searching for his binoculars.
Jim squeezed my arm before turning away and striding out along the black tarmac that snaked its way across the fields.
"Bloody waste of time," Father said, scanning the horizon with his binoculars. "Can’t see sod all."
The sun broke out from behind a cloud as I swung the chair onto the road, facing back the way we had come. It warmed my face. At the top of the incline the chair slipped from my grasp. I stood, rooted to the spot as it started its descent, rapidly gathering speed. It was half-way down before he realised his solitary state, but any protest he made was lost in the breeze that rustled through the long grass, until he met the lorry coming around the bend at the bottom of the hill.
Thus he started on his greatest adventure and I started on mine.