a cup of wine
Dan Briggs heaved a sigh of relief as he reached up to release the heavy metal hooks which held open the large double doors of The Swan. Closing time at last!
The customers, in fact the whole world, seemed to be convinced that the Christmas trade made publicans laugh all the way to the bank. If only they knew! Tonight, Christmas Eve had been hectic. True, takings were high and that should be good for him, his business and his family. Family. That word echoed round in his mind until his head was spinning.
Outwardly he enjoyed his role as the local publican, being at the centre of the village life along with the church. Inwardly his heart was aching. Still he had a public to serve and a position in the community to maintain. He had spent some of his profits to ensure that there was a room for families when necessary. He was also the sponsor of the village darts team. There were a number of small rooms scattered round the old pub, often used by village organisations for their committee meetings; they all added to the takings. Everything one would require in a small village pub. Most of his regulars were local farmers but some were commuters who enjoyed the peace and quiet of the countryside and being away from their busy city lives. His North Country candour meant that he spoke his mind at all times and they appreciated him all the more for that.
He had been delighted with the style that he had brought to the pub. There was now a long bar of polished walnut. The brass beer pumps stood proud and highly polished, each with the name of the sponsoring brewery. Behind the bar there was a high mirror which enabled all the immaculately clean glasses and shorts bottles to shine brightly. Alongside the bar there were a few high stools made of beech. These too were polished and maintained regularly. After all, some of his farmer customers were broad in the beam!
As he stood in the doorway, the light from the porch cut a giant wedge in the snow. With his arms akimbo and feet planted wide apart, his eyes followed his shadow as it stretched out across the snow and rose up the little hill in front of the pub. The sky was a speckled deep blue carpet and the cold night air caused him to breathe deeply. As he exhaled, his breath became a white mist. The security light behind him producing a searchlight effect.
The ache in his heart weighed heavily as he recollected how life had changed for him over the last twelve months.
Christmas seemed to engender the notion that families should be together.
This year was going to be different. For the first time since the children had been born, he would be on his own. He honestly believed in the wisdom, perhaps nobility, by which he had gone without to ensure that their future could be more certain.
There the family had two rooms upstairs and two down with an additional scullery at the rear. It was in this room that he used to see his mother working away at not only the family’s washing, but piles of clothes from others in order to make ends meet. There too he had seen his father digging not only his own allotment, but tilling others so he could add to the subsistence life style in rural Yorkshire.
There he had been brought up to accept the old fashioned values of loyalty, respect and the sanctity of the family unit. He and his wife had had such great dreams as they started their family. Then tragedy struck them with his wife’s illness and her desperate fight for life through terrible pain. Eventually the cancer had won and relieved her of all her agony. She had died, leaving him to bring up two children in their early teenage years. He had grieved in private to shelter his children, but the pain was always just under the surface. Especially now, when he felt he had nothing.
Indeed, life had been tough ever since. He had scrimped to provide his children with the best education that he could afford. Most parents expected their teenage children to get part-time jobs, but not Dan.
“I will provide. Just use the time to study, gain real skills and create a better life for yourselves than your mother and I have had!"
That message was hammered home for years as they grew up.
When both Sarah and Peter went to university, Dan was fit to burst with pride. He should have been looking forward to them coming home for Christmas, but he had sent them into an exile he now desperately regretted. He was not a religious man in the normally accepted sense. He was not “spiritually certain” or anything like that, but he had been brought up to believe that forgiveness was only possible with repentance.
His mind wandered back to that first blow.
Dan’s first inkling that trouble was brewing was when Sarah came home unexpectedly from the social services job she had started only a few months earlier. Whilst he missed his daughter being away from him, he knew she had a life of her own to live, so her sudden arrival meant that she was missing him or that she a real problem.
University had been a tough process for a girl leaving home for the first time, especially one whose mother had died when she was very young. But she had survived three years of study and her year out had been spent looking at how local councils provided support and care for people in need. With her degree in hand, she had applied to work in a town some distance away. She stayed in touch with her dad but had grown the wings of independence since she had left home. The director had set her some tough tasks and she was relishing the challenge. These tasks took her to situations she had never experienced before, including locations off the beaten track – gipsy encampments, transport cafes – children in those situations were often neglected or allowed to run wild.
“Oh, Dad, you would not believe some of the jobs I have to do. Some people don’t deserve to have children. Some of the places I’ve visited would make you shudder.” The poverty and deprivation she had seen reminded her of the stories dad used to tell them about his own childhood. Her boss had thought she might be a bit posh due to the way she spoke, especially bearing in mind the kind of poor and sometime feckless families with whom she would be dealing. However he soon discovered that he was delighted with the insights she brought to her understanding of the problems and, more importantly, the solutions she proposed.
“Darling, please look after yourself. I worry about you. Yet, at the same time, I am so proud of you.”
On that quiet afternoon, almost three months after Sarah had left home full of hopes and self-confidence, Dan was shocked to see her walk through his front door
“Dad, I have something very important to tell you. I’ve met a nice chap named Fred, who wants to marry me. I met him at a transport cafe on one of my assignments.”
“So soon? Please at least develop your skills and get some experience under your belt.” Dan was aghast.
“Dad, I am sorry but I am pregnant.”
Dan had a sharp intake of breath and could feel a lump the size of a cricket ball in his throat. Dan was close to tears, the slap of his hand on his forehead echoed round the small living area over the bar.
“So all that scrimping was for nothing! How could you?”
“Dad, I am really, really sorry, but I do love him!” Sarah too knew that tears were coming and soon as she watched her father shake his head.
“Dad, it is my life.” She was spluttering now.
Dan looked at her, his ashen face shaking. He lifted his right hand to his face, his thumb in his right eye and his index finger in his left, to wipe the tears. Suddenly, he could find nothing to say. The maelstrom of emotions was tearing him apart inside. There was disappointment – bitter, bitter disappointment, as well as shame. Sarah had been popular in the village, now what would be people say – the shame of it!
“Dad, I do love you, but it’s my life.”
“Alright, alright, you’ve already made that clear!”
“We are just having a quiet ceremony, no fuss.”
She left in tears. As she looked back, her father’s face was set like granite. She pondered whether perhaps this was the beginning of a new life for both of them.
The events which followed took both of them by surprise, bringing unhappiness as well as bitterness.
Less than two years after the modest registry office ceremony in front of just two witnesses from the transport cafe, Fred had found another woman and Sarah, destitute, had returned to her dad.
He turned her away.
Then he called her back.
"If you come back, you'll have to work. This place is too big for me as it is. That child will have to go – let that no-good father bring it up."
“Dad, do you know just how brutal that sounds? You know that I’d be grateful for a roof over my head. Look, soon it’ll be Christmas. When you see your grandson playing with his toys near the Christmas tree, I am sure you’ll think differently. I just hope you can forgive me. Especially at this time of year. Besides, Peter will be coming home for Christmas and that will help. Peter's presence always makes you happy.”
But Dan was adamant and Sarah again left in tears. Dan too wanted to understand why he had been so harsh on his own flesh and blood. But Sarah had not considered his feelings in the matter, so why should he spare a thought for hers?
Some months later an unexpected letter arrived.
I am really sorry that you have decided that you want nothing to do with your grandson Daniel. He is lovely boy with a cheerful manner and he is starting to talk and walk. He has a round face just like yours.
I am living in a social services hostel and being looked after and supported by the very team with which I worked. The Team Leader is very supportive and in some ways they see me and my situation as a good test case to see how well or otherwise the “system” is working.
Daniel seems to get on with the other babies in the nursery. I spend lots of time with him even though I am working part-time with the team. I have access to a laptop so when he is asleep I am able to earn something for my keep and ensure that Daniel has a safe base.
I really had thought that seeing Daniel crawling around the Christmas tree would have appealed to you.
Lots of love,
Dan’s son Peter was in his final year at agricultural college. Every time he came home he would tell his dad how much he wanted to put all his new theories into practice. During his time at college, he had been sponsored to travel and work in various countries, some in Europe as well as Africa.
Dan's Christmas present for his son that year was a formidable one.
Alex Hughes, one of Dan's regular customers, owned the farm next door to the pub. Alex was now well over 70 and had decided to retire. Having no children of his own to leave the farm to, he had offered it to Dan for Peter at a very favourable price. Alex only wanted his beer and his pipe now. He would of course be able to help and provide advice whenever it was needed.
Dan was still slowly coming to terms with the news from Sarah when another unexpected letter arrived.
I’m really looking fwd to seeing you at Christmas.
I’ve so much to tell you about Africa. I really have learned a great deal in these last four months. I’ve got all sorts of ideas to make things better for these wretched people.
They have suffered from droughts for years but the new desalination plant and the channels – just like our fens – have made all the difference in the coastal regions.
I never thought I would learn the various dialects of Swahili out here but it seems that I can make myself understood with most people. Occasionally, I make a mistake. I told a story recently about seeing some ndovu swinging from branch to branch and they all burst out laughing. Later I learned that I should have used the word nyani for monkeys because ndovu are elephants!
The university is really pleased with progress and the sponsoring company have asked if I can return in the New Year and stay for at least three years! This is great news dad so I hope you will be pleased for me.
Lots of love
Dan was sure that Peter would change his mind when he came home and heard what his dad had provided for him.
His chest had filled with pride as he explained with great pleasure his fantastic present to his son. He did not often stock champagne but Dan was convinced that the time was ripe for a celebration. He carefully opened the bottle and arranged the glasses on the coffee table in the small lounge upstairs from the bar. The horror on Peter’s face telegraphed more bad news for Dan.
“Dad, I didn’t ask you to do this for me,” Peter pleaded.
“I was so sure that you would be pleased.”
“Look, Dad, I’m sorry but I just can’t do this yet. I really hope you can forgive me and try to understand my point of view.”
“Peter, after all that has happened with your sister, the least I expected was some stability and common sense from you.”
“Look, Dad, please…I am begging you because I love you and I appreciate all you have done for me. But I have seen and done nothing outside my work. Before I settle down and have kids, I want to travel. For the last ten years my studies had to come first, just as you wanted. In this last year, I have visited several farms, some in Eastern Europe and recently in East Africa as you saw from my letter. I have realised how little I have travelled. And what is more how much help I could give them now I have this qualification. Besides, lots of graduates have a gap year, some even have two.”
“Oh Peter, how ungrateful can you be? You self-centred, inconsiderate, selfish boy! Do you realise what you are throwing way? Don't you care what I want?”
Peter, obviously saddened by his father’s reaction, maintained a dignified but disappointed silence.
“Get out and stay out! How can you expect me to forgive you? After all I've done for you.” Dan's anger boiled and boiled and had finally overflowed. He clenched his fists, fixing in his memory the end of his dreams for his son. He lashed out with his foot, spreading the champagne all over the floor. How could he forgive him? The peace of mind he was hoping for had been smashed by the two people he cared for most in the entire world. Yet he had sent them into an exile that had created deep distress for all of them.
The night air was making his eyes water. His breath turning to a white mist as his hot breath met the frosty air.
"Excuse me; do you have a room, please? Forgive me for calling so late."
So intent had he been on reflecting on the events of the past year and on his own sense of emptiness that Dan had not noticed the stranger approaching.
The man stood in Dan's shadow, making his features difficult to see clearly. But he had hair on his face, not a long beard but enough to hide his chin. His eyes seemed to be dark pools and deep set, giving him a mildly Eastern look.
“Certainly not! What business can you have at this time of night? Shove off! Most decent folk are at home with their families!"
That word fizzed round in his mind again.
"Please forgive me for calling so late. You are not the first person to refuse me tonight! But I wish you peace."
The stranger turned and trudged away slowly through the snow towards the hill leading away from the pub.
Peace indeed! As he reflected on what he had just said to the stranger the realisation hit him that he had treated his own children in that same brusque and indifferent way. Answering ‘no’ to every question showed a failure in human sensibility, sensitivity and, above all, respect for another’s point of view. The way he had treated his children had not been the actions of a loving father. Was the road to redemption through forgiveness? Had they both been sorry and sought his forgiveness? Yes, they had! It was for him now to acknowledge that their apologies should be recognised. That old platitude about erring being human and forgiveness being divine and his failure to perform an act of goodwill at the season of goodwill, it all troubled him. They had both sought his forgiveness but he was still resisting.
In his eyes they had fallen from grace, but perhaps the greater fall could have been his own. He could no longer claim to be a loving father.
The church bell struck midnight. It was Christmas, the season of goodwill – and perhaps forgiveness? Dan pondered. Had he been too harsh because they had not done his will? He thrust his head into his hands, a large lump grew in his throat and he felt the tears dribbling through his fingers. What he had shown to his children had been pride? Stupid, stupid pride.
Should he forgive?
How could he find that peace of which the stranger had spoken?
Dan's eyes followed his own shadow across the snow towards the hill. In the distance he could see the stranger, quite clearly now, in the glare of the lights from the porch.
But His figure threw no shadow.