Short Story – My Old Man

By Sheila Ireland

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All morning the cars had been turning up at the grounds of the university, most of them modern and expensive, reflecting the success of the men who drove them, the fathers of my peers, my fellow students, my friends for the past four years.

I watched the cars arrive from the window of my room on the campus, half-hoping that my father might emerge from one of them, but knowing in my heart that he wouldn’t. The men who got out of those big cars with their well-dressed wives were obviously men of some achievement, in industry, management, or commerce. Men who had done something with their lives.

My old man never did much with his. Up until I was five I never even knew what he did. He simply left home in the morning and came back at night; that was all. He always seemed very pleased to see us, mum and me, my two older sisters and my big brother. After dinner he would sit me on his knee and read to me from my storybook, and after a while I would fall asleep and he would put me to bed and tuck me in.

When one of us got sick with cold or flu, he would walk to the pharmacy for some medicine, even if it rained or snowed. When my mum got very ill, he stayed at home and took care of her. But she had to go to the hospital anyway.

More cars swung into the quadrangle below me now, and I glanced at my watch, but it was all right. There was still time for him to arrive before the ceremony began. I hoped the bus he caught from home to the railway station had been on time, and that his train hadn’t been delayed.

My cap and gown lay across my bed; I had rented them from a shop in tow. When I was a kid I used to wear my big brother’s hand-me-downs, but every winter my father bought me a brand-new pair of shoes.

It was winter when my mother died. My sister Kate was 18 and she took care of us while my father went to work. He was a labourer. He never did anything of any importance. 

He didn’t smoke or drink or gamble. He came home at night and helped me with my homework. He laughed at the jokes I’d heard at school, even though some of them were very corny. He listened to all my moans. He was never too busy.

The cars had stopped coming now. It was getting near time. I could see some of my friends standing with their parents below, already wearing their robes. The grass they stood on looked very green.

I wished my old man would turn up.

Sometimes he was late home from work. My sister Kate would wait until he came before she went out. He was always very tired, but I always fell asleep before he did. Sometimes I dreamed of him working. Digging holes in the road; filling them up again.

He never did much.

It was time to get ready. Down below, my friends and their parents were making their way into the big hall. I turned from the window, slipped on the robe and took the cap in my hand.

My father wore black at my mother’s funeral. He just stood there with his head bowed. I went back over to the window, just in case, and then I saw him; my old man, looking lost.

He wore his best suit. It was a bit creased and a bit shiny. His hair was combed flat. His shoes were polished. He was carrying a small bag.

“Hi, Dad. You made it all right, then?”

“Only just. Never was much at travelling.”

True, he had never been anywhere.

We hurried into the big hall, which was already packed. My father didn’t mind standing at the back.

It was almost like being in church, the hall with its stained glass windows, high stone walls and sculptured ceiling. The rector and the teaching staff sitting on a platform behind the dais. Then the hush before the sermon. And, at last, the beginning of the ceremony.

The names of the graduates were read out, one by one. I stood with my father, waiting to hear mine. I wondered what he was thinking. He had never won an award or a prize in his life.

Every Sunday he went to the cemetery to visit my mum. He lived alone: my sisters were both married and my brother lived in Australia. He never complained.

My name was called out, and I walked down the aisle and accepted my Honours Degree. My friends grinned at me and a couple of them raised their thumbs. I was thinking of my father, how when I was a kid he taught me to ride my first bike. He ran behind me for miles until I got the hang of it.

Outside, he unzipped the little bag he was carrying and took out the camera that was packed beside his flask and sandwiches, and I let him take my picture outside the main university building. My father had taken many pictures but was never in any himself, so I made him stand where I had stood, and clicked the camera twice.

A group of my friends were standing with their parents under the trees. Rich people. Successful people. I took my father’s arm and we went across to meet them. He was a bit reluctant. He thought he was a failure compared to them, and maybe he was right. My old man never did much with his life. 

I don’t know why I’m so proud of him.

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