9. Last Christmas
He’d last seen Harry three months ago.
Amelia had claimed the boys for the holidays and Cassidy had gone home, alone, for Christmas on the Cape. He and his father sat out on the wrap around porch of the beach house, surrounded by potted plants, drinking tar black coffee out of their favourite chipped mugs. His gift to his parents had been a CD player and one CD, to replace the family’s antiquated gramophone. Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ provided a perfect soundtrack to the early evening.
He loved Beethoven.
“How’s life treating you son? Rolling with the punches?”
Cassidy thought of horseshoes, the kind that you’d put inside a big brown boxing glove. As a boy he’d found a canvas sack full of them in the boathouse and convinced himself that his father was a prizefighter. And then one morning, Harry had slung the sack over his shoulder and taken Cassidy and his two brothers to the beach at Sandy Neck to introduce them to the game of ‘Horseshoes’.
They pitched the heavy iron shoes at a stake in the sand, arguing over ‘ringers’ and ‘closest to’s’.
"Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades”, sang Harry.
They played ‘first to 21’ over and over until their wrists ached, and then took to skimming stones, occasionally scoring sixers and seveners.
Only Harry could get into double figures.
“It’s good to be home Dad; things seem clearer from here, but… life’s complicated.”
Cassidy looked at his father’s weather beaten features. Nearly ninety and in pretty good shape, chipper even. As ever, that faded blue cap sat atop his peeling pate. There were fresh scabs on his forehead; he had always been a practical but clumsy man; too tall for his own body. He’d stopped shaving regularly and the stubble added to an air of rough integrity. Round wire glasses sat square on a bulbous blue veined nose that Cassidy knew he would inherit. Your nose and your eyes keep growing he thought, everything else shrinks. His father’s ears were now huge and hairy, like hirsute plastic comedy ears, although his lobes remained fleshy, perky pink and… chewable. Harry’s hands were huge also, the hands of a boxer, not a poet. I hope to hell I look that that when I’m 86, thought Cassidy.
A faint aroma of baking came from within the house. He pictured his mother peeling apples by the kitchen table, standing barefoot upon her ‘magic carpet’, a woolen Berber rug that Harry had bartered for and bought on their honeymoon in Morocco. It was her most cherished possession “and the only treasure I need”. As a boy he’d lie on the luxuriant pile while Annie cooked and the gramophone crackled, pressing his face into the soft wool, conjuring mountains and valleys out of the woven patterns, mapping out his future adventures.
Cassidy was going to be an explorer when he grew up. For his 10th birthday he’d been gifted a copy of Jack London’s ‘Call of the Wild’, inscribed with the words “Remember Pete, all journeys lead to home. With much admiration, from one ‘Sailor on Horseback’ to another. Love Grandpa Bertie”. Bertrand Cassidy’s escapades were family legend. Born in 1900 he’d been a boy whaler and later a Merchant Marine, before settling on the Nantucket Sound in the early 1920s to pursue his passion for deep sea fishing. Here he met and married Molly Stevens and developed ‘BC’s’, a boat charter company, soon one of the biggest in Barnstable County. He built his beloved ‘Beach House’ with the fruits of that labour. In his later years, and to the family’s astonishment, he had revealed a long hidden talent to become ‘Yarmouth Yodeler of the Year’, a title that he proudly retained for four years straight before ill-fitting dentures compromised his art. Old BC still made guest appearances, and it was in preparation for the competition of ’89 that he had driven himself into town for a shave and a trim. Although still sprightly, his eyesight was poor and he hadn’t noticed an unmarked worker’s trench outside of Bob’s Barbershop. The fall broke a leg that would never properly heal. He hobbled around the house with a cane until he just seemed to lose patience with that shuffling decline and, in his 90th year, Bertrand Cassidy quietly passed away, on his porch, in the very chair that Harry, his son now gently rocked. Cassidy could still picture Grandpa Bertie sitting there, in a faded bleu de chine fisherman’s jacket, tipping his bright blue cap to his wife and gently singing “Molly, my Molly, she’s the only older lady whooo I love.”
Looking out past Chatham Lighthouse, beyond the elbow of the bay, Cassidy accepted that his journey had undeniably brought him home. But he was no ‘sailor on horseback’, no explorer. Cassidy cradled his coffee cup and chuckled at the thought of himself as an adventurer. Of all the people he knew he was probably the least prepared for uncharted territory. He only had to look at a city road map and he’d come out in a cold sweat. He was a home bird and the beach house, this mine of memories, offered safe harbour, shelter from those complications of London.
“Complications?” Harry’s spidery eyebrows arched. “Stop trying to understand everything Pete. There are always more questions than answers. Crows and doves son, crows and doves. It’s how you react to the storm; that’s the stuff that shapes you. What you is is what you aint.”
What I is is what I aint?
“Absolutely. Our strengths are our weaknesses son”, he scratched at his head “and ah… vice versa. We’re all shaped by our mistakes and compromises. The trick is in knowing when to let go of things; no point watering dead flowers.” Harry flinched, seemingly agitated, as if trying to make sense of a distant calling. He looked around at his chaotic collection of potted plants then back at Cassidy, his left eye drooped, rheumy and discoloured. “I’m going to tell you something now that might mark me out as a sappy pappy, something even Annie doesn’t know, but I’ll give it a go because I think you’re in need of some… affirmation.” He took a long swig of coffee.
“I was born in this house. You know that. Story goes that when I emerged all bloody and bawling the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ was bellowing out of the gramophone. He loved Handel did your Grandpa. That certainly marked the moment for old Bertie, for, secretly, he was a mawkish mule too. Just before he passed, he confessed that he’d whistle me home with that tune whenever I was out in heavy seas, probably even tried yodeling it knowing Bertie.” Harry picked up his old Corn Cob pipe and idly placed the bit between his teeth. He hadn’t smoked for over twenty years but the pipe was still a prominent feature. Only Archie dared call him ‘Popeye’.
“Anyways, when Tom was born I too felt the need to mark the moment. There were no tunes blasting out, no ‘hallelujahs’ for Tommy. But I knew I wanted to honour his birth with something that would endure, but something personal: something private: something just for me. I sat here on the porch listening to your mom howling at the saints, using language would make a fisherman blush. I took my mind off the carnage by tending to my shrubs, it’s always been a grand passion of mine as you know.” He flourished a hand. “Your mother loves to fuss over her flowers but these plants are my charge. They don’t really need me mind, feisty little fellas, most can fend for themselves, don’t shout out “look at me and love me”, makes me admire them all the more. They just get on with the business of… survival. And there I got the idea. I’d always coveted a ‘Thanksgiving Cactus’. Real beauties; strong, handsome, independent, spiky little fuckers”, he ducked his head and glanced towards the open kitchen window “but not quite as thorny as they look. Virtues that any father would wish upon his sons.” Harry blinked hard, tilted his head “And there you all are.” He nodded towards three potted cacti that stood close to his chair. “Tom is the gnarly old bugger in the cracked green vase. In fact he is the only true claw cactus. He’s certainly seen better days but, as you can see, he still produces a beautiful scarlet flower every winter. I planted Dick skew if, hence his sorry twisted self” he pointed to five contorted tubas emerging from a terra cotta pot; the tallest central digit seemed to be flipping them the bird. “I only found out recently that Dick is an Echinopsis, otherwise known as a ‘Penis Cactus’ or ‘Woman’s Joy’. Kind of ironic eh, given your brother’s name and his tomcat habits. The cactus stood proud: plump, rigid, and undeniably phallic.
“And this one is you son.” Harry reached for a squat turquoise pot that hosted an orange flowering plant, and placed it in Cassidy’s lap.
“Yours is a ‘Christmas Cactus’, in its prime this very month. Experience taught me to tend to you the best, which often means just ignoring you. No fussing, I just knew how to position you better. You’ve thrived, here in your absence.”
As Cassidy sat cradling his wholesome effigy he noticed a small letter ‘P’ etched an inch above the base of the pot. Fashioned by Harry’s hand, forty-four years ago. Forty-four years and… one month. Without warning, Cassidy’s shoulders shuddered and he wept openly, effusively. Like a baby.
“Let it go son.” Harry looked away, rubbed his forehead hard and then slid a hand into his pocket, pulling out a perfectly ironed white handkerchief.
“You’re wound too tight Peter. Too many knots. Too many complications.” He absently traced a blue embroidered ‘H’ with his thick, yellow thumbnail, waved the hanky towards his son, then thrust it back deep into his pocket.
“Seems to me that your life is too damned… considered. Maybe you’ve had to be so protective of the boys that you’ve shut yourself off from hazard. You’ve become hobbled by habit Pete. Open some windows, let in some light; you never know, a little life might creep in around the edges.” He chewed down heavily on the charred stem of his pipe. “Ring the friends that you knew before Amelia. Talk to some strangers. Go get yourself laid”, he whispered, glancing towards the open kitchen window again. “If there’s one thing I do know it’s that we seldom help ourselves.” That tilt of the head. “It’s other people that rescue us son. The best of us is reserved for other people, and the best that we can hope for is to bathe in some of their… reflected light. You get what you give Pete.” He pulled the pipe from his mouth and raised the mug to his lips. “And here endeth the lesson. Cold comfort I know, cold as this damn coffee.”
He leant forward and gently squeezed Cassidy’s knee with that huge hand, then took the cactus from his son’s lap and placed it in the incandescent light between them.
Cassidy had recovered and wiped his face on his sleeve.
“We’re all damaged Pete. That damage defines us. Our wounds might not be pretty to look at but they make us better men; give us integrity.”
Cassidy winced; how come his dad always made song lines and pale platitudes sound like immutable, well-worn wisdom?
“Honour your life boy, get to living it, but remember that the joy is in the journey…”
Christ, he should have been a country singer.
“And that truth rings like a bell."
Indeed it does Pops, thought Cassidy, brushing fresh dirt and 20-year-old tobacco from his lap.