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#30 A Familiar House
Wow - my thirtieth publication. I didn’t think I’d make it this far so it’s with great pleasure I can share a new short story called A Familiar House. It’s about a man whose father is dying, and on a business trip to the Netherlands, a set of circumstances preclude a dire outcome.
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#30 A Familiar House
The hands of the man opposite are clammy and when we shake I try my hardest to hide the tremor running down my spine.
I’m in Utrecht. Outside of Amsterdam. The deal is a messy one, having taken well over a year for the two executive teams to agree to. Once fierce competitors, now merging as one races ahead in the market. The other clinging at the last strands of its power but ultimately accepting defeat. The financials are astounding. And I’ll profit. But at the expense of having to shake this man’s clammy hand.
And being away from home at a precious moment.
After the meeting finishes, I go to the bathroom, wash my hands, wash my face, look at myself in the mirror with a slightly peculiar, sad feeling rather than anything resembling vanity.
My phone rings. It’s my sister.
‘I haven’t caught you at a bad time?’
‘No, no. I just finished a meeting. In Utrecht.’
‘Cool. How’s the weather there?’
‘Has it happened?’
‘I thought that’s why you were calling. Delivering the bad news.’
‘No, no. Nothing like that.’
‘How is he?’
‘Getting worse. He lost consciousness last night, briefly. But they managed to stabilise him, for now.’
‘It’s just awful, isn’t it? I feel bad for saying I wish it all happened quicker. I wish it was done by now.’
‘You should really be here. He’s your father.’
‘I know. I know I should.’
‘Can you come back?’
‘I’m heading back to the airport shortly.’
‘Get here as soon as you can. You should be with him. You of all people.’
‘Yes, yes. I’ll finish up here and get on the road. I’ll be with you tonight.’
‘See you later.’
The aircon sends stale air circulating around the car. I reach down and twizzle the lever to point it away from me, but the air keeps blowing. My nose is stuffed with the circulating dust and my throat feels scratchy. The driver seems not to feel the same, as, moments after my intervention, he reaches for the dial in the centre of the dashboard and cranks the air up a notch. It feels like five notches and it sounds like we’re on an aeroplane taking off.
I close my eyes. I imagine I’m back home in Yorkshire with my wife. I imagine we’re walking down by the river, and then at home by the fire and on holiday on the beach or in Central Park in New York. I imagine I’m with Dad. His hand in mine while he lies in his hospital bed. Christ, I imagine we’re anywhere but here in this car. What if I’m here for eternity? What if this is what death is like? A perpetual drive with nothing to see, stale air circulating dust through me, and a driver so boring he absolutely has to be dead too.
There’s nothing outside but the flat Dutch farmlands. Fields and fields. A tractor. A van. An advert for fast food whose details I can’t read. We’re driving quickly, and soon, a little road appears that hangs off the one we’re driving on, and climbs up a short hill to a string of old cottages.
As we approach it, running parallel to the houses, I see the clouds hang over the houses and the sun reaches down through a crack in them and illuminates the facade of one. A man is climbing down the side of a tractor opposite one of the houses and idles towards it with his dog. And something there, something in that whole scene, punches me inside and suddenly I find myself wiping the edges of gathering tears. I can’t take my eyes off it.
A thought comes to mind. No, not a thought, more of an image, or a series of images, like a scene in a film shot on an old super 8 camera. Like those shitty flashback scenes in movies by directors lacking creativity. There’s a boy who I think must be me, and a man, a father, who must be mine. And the father is driving along a road just like this, with the boy in the passenger seat. There’s no one else with them. No other family members. The father is telling the boy about music, the music of the 1950s, of whom he was a great supporter. The boy is listening intently and asking questions.
In the middle of one such conversation, there is a loud bang and the car wobbles from side to side, as the father tries to get a handle of the car. A flat tire. Up ahead there’s a road, just like the one we passed a moment ago, and the father slows the car, pulls up the road and stops by its side.
He tells the boy, ‘I won’t be a minute. You stay here.’
And the boy smiles and nods. The father ruffles his hair.
The father climbs out of the car and the vehicle rocks as he slams shut the car door and steps toward one of the houses up ahead. The boy sees his father knock on the door. A man steps out, a young man, and they have a conversation, with the father pointing to the car and the man looking at him confused. My father then enters the house and the boy doesn’t see him for a long while.
‘Stop the car!’ I shout at the driver. ‘Stop the car!’
The driver looks in his rearview mirror, perhaps for the first time, to see me staring at him and shouting: stop the fucking car!
The driver slams on the brakes and careens to the side of the road. Lucky for him, and for me, there’s no other cars on the road around us.
‘What is it?’ the driver asks, but I’ve already swung open the passenger door and stepped out into the grey Dutch countryside. I look back towards the road I saw with the houses on.
‘I won’t be long,’ I say to the driver.
I start to walk back towards that road, and then I break into a run. As it approaches, that odd feeling within me only grows. It’s like deja vu, or some peculiar nostalgia, like everything is coming together at the right moment. Like this is where I’m meant to be, or where my path was always going to lead me to. Which I know makes no sense. I really ought to be by my father’s side. But I’m here on business.
The road is just as I saw it in that scene. Which perhaps isn’t surprising. It’s just as I saw it a moment ago, too. I turn off the main road and up the short hill. There’s the string of houses up the top, over the mound, and the tractor.
There’s the house whose door my father knocked at. I run up, not stopping for a breath, and knock on the same old, wooden door and then I hear a dog bark on the other side, and footsteps approaching.
A man opens the door and speaks Dutch, ‘Hallo,’ and then he says something incomprehensible. The dog runs out and jumps up at me barking.
‘I’m very sorry… Very sorry to disturb you. Do you speak English?’
The man looks confusedly at me as he pulls his dog down to earth, and says, ‘Not… good.’ He looks over his shoulder to who must be his wife standing behind him.
‘Many years ago, a long time ago - perhaps thirty years ago - I think a man came here in a car. He had a flat tire. He was English too. And he had a little boy in the car with him. And you helped the man. I’m sure it was you. He didn’t have a spare tire, but you did, and you helped him. Do you remember?’
The man stares at me the whole time I speak, but gives no sign that he knows what I am talking about. He looks again at his wife and then back to me. She looks at him with that blank expression that says, ‘Get rid of this crazy man.’
‘Sorry… English… Not good.’
‘A man. Do you remember a man? With a car? A long time ago.’
‘Sorry… not good… English not good.’
My skin is crawling, itching, burning to get a satisfactory answer, whatever that might be.
‘You must remember. You have to!’
‘Go now. Go. English not good. Sorry.’ The man steps out and pushes me back onto the grass. He starts to speak in Dutch. I have no idea what he’s saying, but from his tone and gestures, I get the message.
I step back onto the road and look at him, and the house. I’m sure more than ever that I was here with Dad when I was a boy, and he just a young man. This was the house. What we were doing here I have no idea. We never spoke later about a trip to the Netherlands. We never spoke about going to Utrecht, or Amsterdam, or anywhere near here. But yet, I know, I know more than I know anything else, that I was here with him and he came here with a flat tire.
Rain starts to fall, a drop landing on my forehead. I look up and see the spread of raindrops falling around me.
My gut feels like I’ve taken a series of beatings.
My phone vibrates in my pocket.
I knew this would happen. It could only be…
I pull the phone from my pocket and my sister’s name is blinking on a bright screen. I stare at it for a moment before declining the call.
I already know what she has to say.