Friday, 15 January 2010

Earth Stood Hard As Iron: Part 2

Gordon wakes with a start. Nothing has moved, nothing changed. His breath still hangs frozen in the air and his face feels distant and stiff, a marionette he can only vaguely control.

“Cal? Where are you?” He mumbles into the blanket wrapped around his body and tucked up to his chin; it’s hard to articulate words when you’re so cold. “Cal?”

The small dog trots obediently in and meets Gordon’s gaze.

“Cal.” A smile spreads across Gordon’s face. Neither is alone. Cal hops up once more onto his lap and settles into the faint depression of the blanket where he had spent the night, enjoying the warmth that reminds him of sleep.

“Happy Christmas old chap,” Gordon says, patting his friend’s head. They sit together for a few moments, Cal immediately beginning to doze as Gordon runs a hand down his weary companion’s back. A sigh from both. “Time to warm ourselves up, I think. Won’t be a moment.” He lifts the dog from his lap and rises slowly, placing Cal back on the warm patch in the chair before turning on the electric fire below the mantelpiece. “Both bars today. Let’s have a treat.”

The television remains on from the night before, having gone from meaningless dross to snow to dross again while they slept. Gordon turns it off and settles back into his chair, pulling the blanket over himself once again. He finds himself facing a bare wall, a glowing fire and a blank screen.

No, it’s Christmas, there must be something on.

With a deep breath Gordon unravels himself once more from the blanket and gets back up again. One of these days he’ll get a television with a remote, but for now this one has picture and sound, and that is all they need. He clicks it on to the BBC. Just the news. It’s cold, people are sad about something someplace, but happy that it’s Christmas. No surprises.

The man and his dog settle into that familiar ritual of Christmas day, of celebrating within one’s meagre means and being glad of it: Special food for Cal (a surprise), a cup of real coffee for Gordon and two bars on the electric fire for them both.

As yesterday it is cold out, too cold to leave the house unless you have to. Church can wait till next year. Instead, they watch Songs Of Praise on the television, Gordon singing along under his breath to those familiar carols. An observer would only see lips moving and hear the occasional deep note or grunt, but Gordon truly is singing; the quiet song of a cold, weary old man. The carriage clock on the desolate mantelpiece ticks over impatiently, marking time until the day’s end.

He gets up only once more in the next 3 hours, to go to the toilet. His hand is cold on the flush, and the water from the taps might as well be ice. As he’s up, Gordon begins to prepare his measly Christmas feast. Peeling the carrots and potatoes, pairing the sprouts; the cold makes these simple things as tortuous as threading a needle. Gordon fills a pan with water, lights the hob and places the vegetables in; one saucepan is enough for everything.

For a moment he stares into the gas ring and allows its heat to caress his face. Suddenly, the harsh bell of a ringing telephone shatters his silent peace. No-one rings Gordon, not even on Christmas. He moves slowly, reluctantly, half hoping it will stop before he reaches it. It does not.


“Hello, is this Gordon Strathairn?” An unfamiliar voice on the other end of the telephone.


“I - ” the voice wavers, “Gordon, I’m sorry to disturb you, but - ”

“No cold calling!” Gordon slams down the handset, and starts his slow hobble back to the kitchen. The phone rings again before he’s even reached the door.


“Gordon, I’m sorry, but - ”


“Please, I’m not selling anything - Please?”

“What do you want?” A pause on the other end of the line. Five seconds is a long time without words in a telephone conversation and ten seconds might be considered rude. After fifteen, one wonders if the other person is even there. Gordon waits. “What? Who is this?” There is a deep sigh on the other end of the telephone.

“This is your son.”

A thick fog of silence hangs between them once more. For Gordon, time stands still; the television makes no sound, the pipes stop creaking and only the incessant ticking of the mantelpiece clock seems able to break into the stony tomb of the living room.

“I don’t have a son.”

“I’m afraid you do.” This is now the voice of a man, flesh and blood, grown-up. Insistant.

“Is this a joke? Leave me alone.” Gordon moves to put the telephone down again but only gets half way.

“Please.” That note of desperation again, undeniable. “I’m sorry to interrupt Christmas like this, please apologise to your family for me?”

“There’s no-one here, it’s just me and Cal.”


“The dog.” Cal is asleep in the chair and snoring gently, having made a generous blanket-nest for himself in Gordon’s otherwise vacant chair.

“Listen,” says the voice, again with resolve, “I know you don’t believe me - ”

“You’re right.”

“And you’ve got no reason to. But, you do know someone called Mary McCandless?” At this, all the fight and bravado, all the gruffness, is sucked out of Gordon like poison from a wound.

“I haven’t heard that name in a long time,” he says. “Almost forty years.”

“Call her, and she’ll explain. Here’s her number.” The voice says a phone number and Gordon notes it down with a racing heart. Mary McCandless. Notting Hill Carnival in 1966, she was all flowing hair and skirts while he was scrawny in drainpipes and a Beatles t-shirt. They had danced, drank, believed they were in love. And then she went, and he went, and that was that.

“Are you sure?” Now it is Gordon’s voice that wavers. “I mean, are you sure?”

“I’m sure Gordon. Just call her.” This voice was gentle now, kind and caring. Big news for an old man.

“Wait! What’s your name?”

“It’s Joseph. I’m afraid I have to go. Take care now, I’ll speak to you soon.”

“Goodbye - ” he pauses, “Joseph.” The line goes dead and once more Gordon and Cal are alone in each other’s company. Gordon stands above the telephone, staring at it, pondering the conversation. It is like he has just witnessed it rather than actually taken part, a remote observer upon the fallout of someone else’s miscalculations. Mary McCandless. Joseph McCandless. The unfamiliar names twirl around his head. Could this be real? Could this be happening, on Christmas day of all days?

He smiles privately. Christmas day for Gordon is largely the same as any other, except the television is better and the shops are shut. But the sentimentality is still there, the idealism and hope. Perhaps that was what that phone call was – sentimentality. A fatherless man hoping to right some unspoken wrongs of the past, buoyed up by the spirit of the season. But in all likelihood it was a cruel, extremely cruel practical joke. But Mary McCandless! Who could know that name?

Gordon looks at the crumpled piece of paper in his hand and the number hastily scrawled upon it. Taking the phone with him, he slumps down in his chair and begins to dial.

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