Lost For Words

Young Lady with telephone Illustration: Shutterstock

Because words can be hopelessly inadequate when it comes to family

“Hello, Dad,” I said, putting on the hearty voice I reserved for my father’s calls. There was always a pause before he spoke that made my shoulders tighten.

“Hello, Jessica.”

Always Jessica. Never Jess or Jessie.

I tried to remember when we’d last spoken. Probably on his birthday, though I knew he’d called since then. I’d been out, and the answering machine had picked up his laboured breathing as he’d pondered what to say.

He’d never been good with technology – or people. He was an artist. Brilliant with images and yet terrible with words.

“How are you?” he enquired gruffly, to my surprise. He usually waited for me to whip up a conversation, and I generally obliged with chit-chat and questions about his health – which was robust, apart from the arthritis that hampered his ability to paint.

I guessed Mum must have told him that Declan and I had split up. Even though they’d divorced nearly twenty years ago she still kept in touch with Dad, which used to puzzle me – especially after she remarried.

“No man is an island, especially not your father, in spite of what he thinks,” she’d said firmly, and I’d known on some level it was true – that despite his poor communication when I was growing up, he’d liked knowing I was there.

“I’m OK,” I said to him carefully, prodding the edges of my feelings to see if it was true. I’d known for a while things weren’t working out with Declan, that he was never going to settle with one woman.

The parting, when it finally came, had been something of a relief.

“I’m absolutely fine,” I added, and my father made a noise that might have been relief.

“I never liked him,” he said gruffly. “You deserve better.”

I couldn’t have been more astonished if he’d appeared in front of me, like a genie…

Dad rarely expressed an opinion.

“That’s a bit rich,” I managed, trying to keep my voice neutral. “You weren’t exactly perfect husband material.”

“You think I don’t know that?”

The sadness in his voice was as deep as the ocean, and unexpected tears sprang to my eyes.

“How are you?” I said, attempting to steer the conversation in a different direction. The gulf between us felt too wide to start filling with all the things we’d never said – not helped by the fact that I hadn’t seen him since he moved to a remote part of Scotland. “Mum says you’ve an exhibition coming up.”

He’d been asked to show some old paintings after an interview with a persistent journalist saw him featured in a national magazine.

According to Mum it had given him a new lease of life to be discovered all over again.

“He only ever needed recognition for his work,” she’d said without rancour, but I felt a dart of anger that it was still his painting that took precedence over everything else.

“It’ll raise some money,” he said and I frowned.

“And I suppose that’s all that matters.” He’d never particularly worried about money before, though his paintings had always sold well. He’d made some bad investments, and wasn’t remotely bothered when they didn’t pay off – one of the reasons Mum finally divorced him.

There was a long silence at the end of the phone and for once I didn’t fill it…

I was tired of pandering to him, of doing things his way. In all the time I’d been with Declan he only visited once, and even then he’d struggled to engage with us. I was surprised he’d managed to form an opinion, now I thought about it.

“It’s for the little boy,” he said eventually, and my gaze flew to the rug where my son was kicking his chubby legs and contentedly shaking his rattle. My beautiful baby boy, with hair as soft as feathers and his grandfather’s sky-blue eyes.

“I’d like to visit, and bring him something special,” he said gruffly.

I detected a longing in his tone – whether for forgiveness, or an opportunity to make a difference this time, I couldn’t tell – but it suddenly didn’t matter. I pictured him, agonising over just the right gift, the fretwork of lines around his eyes deepening as he fumbled out his worn leather wallet.

My tears spilled over.

“You don’t have to bring anything, Dad,” I said, softly. “Only yourself.”

We’re sharing a short story collection from our archives every Monday and Thursday during August. Look out for more heartwarming family fiction – and remember, there’s exciting new fiction every week in My Weekly magazine, too. Sign up for a money-saving subscription here.