Echoes by Louise Brakspear


The empty sardine tin wheeled through the air and landed in the recycling box, where it coasted slowly down the previous week’s TV mag like a tiny sledge.

Ned turned his attention to the next candidate in the washing up bowl, his entire focus centred on scrubbing every remnant of tomato from the can as if it had been Lady Macbeth’s bloody hand. He’d run out of crockery early on – none of them had had much of an appetite – but the recycling had been building up. Keeping his head down and his attention on his task meant he could ignore the regular comings and goings of his wife and son through the kitchen, carting things out to the car, changing their minds, bringing things back. It had nothing do with him.

During a lull in proceedings, when they were both outside and the sound of their voices no longer carried to him, he raised his eyes from the cooling murky water and stared into space. This is what it will be like soon, he thought, listening intently to the silence and testing its strength. He tried to cast himself forward several months, when he’d let himself into an empty house every evening and it would feel perfectly normal, when this queasy feeling in his stomach and the tremor that kept running through his frame would have eased. He couldn’t recall a day he’d wanted so badly to see the back of and yet hang on to so tightly.

On his next passage through the kitchen, he heard Miles’ steps hesitate before they sidled towards him.

‘Dad, you will remember to water my plants, won’t you?’


‘Because you didn’t remember when I went to stay with Granny and Grandad.’

‘I’ll do it.’ Ned had the feeling that something more was required of him. ‘I promise.’

Miles peered keenly up into his father’s face with his head on one side, in his favourite truth diviner attitude, and whatever he found there apparently satisfied him. Still, he lingered.

‘I missed them,’ Miles announced, and for a second Ned was ready to tear off the rubber gloves and somehow find a way of boxing up twenty-seven ferns to transport the 485 miles to Glasgow in a car already packed to the gills so that his son wouldn’t be separated from them, before his brain caught up with his hearing and he realised Miles had actually said, ‘And mist them.’


Following a school trip to the Eden Project, Miles had purchased his first fern – a maidenhair (they knew all their names) – and proceeded to turn his bedroom into a mini rain forest, pursuing his hobby with all the zeal of a Victorian plant hunter. Having something to look after had really helped with his anxiety and, in his own small way, Miles felt he was helping to combat climate change, which Ned knew loomed over his son like the monstrous shadow of a T-Rex.

The two of them continued to stand there awkwardly, and Ned was not unaware that this was the first conversation they’d had that morning. He’d debated with himself last night about what tone he should adopt today, and come to the conclusion that businesslike would be best for all concerned, that he should try as far as possible to keep his own emotions out of it. But perhaps speaking as little as was necessary to Miles, and in fact barely looking at his son if he could avoid it, had not been the greatest of plans. His attempt at restraint may have come across more as callous.

Miles suddenly flew off towards the stairs, never trudging up them if he could dash, and at the same time Ned caught the quiet whir of the electric wheelchair approaching from outside. It halted at the door and, with his back to her, Ned expected his wife to speak, but instead she simply waited for him to turn around. Even giving him his name seemed to be an intimacy too far these days.

Stripping off the gloves, he revolved slowly to face her, and jerked up his chin in a gesture of enquiry.

‘Could you put the bigger suitcases into the car for us, please? They are a bit too heavy for my father to lift.’


‘Where is Miles? Is he nearly ready to go?’

They both tilted their faces upwards, listening to the patter of feet as their son scampered up and down the landing above them like an industrious rodent.

‘Doesn’t sound like it. There’s no hurry, is there?’

‘It’s a long journey.’

Is it? What, Plymouth to Glasgow?’ Ned exclaimed with mock incredulity, and Varvaara compressed her lips rather than replying. To be fair to her, there wasn’t a whole lot of point in starting that argument again now.

‘Miles!’ he called. ‘Come on, your mother wants to leave.’

Again, the compressed lips. The scampering overhead paused and then resumed.

In the absence of conversation, they could clearly hear through the thin dividing wall the sound of giggling from next-door’s tenant and his girlfriend, and he and Varvaara exchanged an involuntary glance of shared revulsion. Everything was funny when you were young and in the first dizziness of love. Every stupid, banal remark that came out of your partner’s mouth was absolutely hilarious, and they were still at the stage of their relationship where they felt the need to play to an audience, even if it was only themselves. If giggling could be considered a form of harassment then Ned and his family had suffered it continually for months. Miles had nicknamed them the Twits, after the couple in the Roald Dahl book. He and Varvaara had another name for them.

The upward trajectory of the Twits’ romance, based on what appeared to be merely a mutual attachment to takeaways and video games, had only highlighted the increasingly obvious fact that Ned’s had stalled and was about to crash. The prolonged separation had reminded him of adolescence in a way, in that while the turbulence could be hideous, now it was over, something in him felt less alive. He still couldn’t have explained to himself, let alone an outsider, exactly what had gone wrong between them, but it had been going on for such a long time that he’d grown used to it, and when Varvaara had finally made the break, it had been as much of a shock to him as to their family and friends.

When it came down to it, perhaps it was simply that Ned was content with his life as it was, with plodding along the road, enjoying the scenery, no particular destination in mind, while Varvaara wanted something glorious to speed towards, before MS reduced her horizon any further. Now she had won a postgraduate place at Glasgow University to continue her study of archaeology, and Ned could still find enough room in his heart to feel proud of her, even while he questioned whether she could have found a place that was any further away. He supposed he should be grateful she’d found one in this country and not in Estonia where she’d grown up.

He felt marooned where she’d left him, unable to get his bearings on suddenly becoming a single man again after fourteen years of marriage and eleven of fatherhood. The loneliness of it chilled him, because the person whom he most wanted to talk to about it, the person who understood him better than anyone, was Varvaara.

More than anything else though, he knew he’d failed Miles.

At the thought of his son, Miles suddenly came thundering back down the stairs, cradling something green and feathery in the crook of his arm. His mother looked up sharply.

‘Oh, no,’ she began, ‘You’re not –’

‘I’m not. I’m just taking one. I’m only taking this one.’ He appeared ready to do battle and she gave in with a good grace. The two of them headed outside and Ned, knowing the moment couldn’t be put off any longer, drew a deep if shaky breath, and followed in their wake to make his farewells.

He couldn’t remember the day his own father had left. Ned had been a lot younger than Miles, of course – seven – and his father had left not to pursue a cherished and laudable ambition but to move in with his mistress. There had been no proper goodbye though, he recalled that much. His father had been around less and less, and then suddenly not at all. It came as no surprise to the young Ned, who though he may not have understood the emotions, had still been exposed to them, and been able to connect the dots in the snatches of charged exchanges he’d heard between his parents. At least he’d never made the mistake of assuming that Miles had no idea what was going on just because he appeared oblivious. Little ears picked up everything.

‘Why didn’t you say goodbye to me?’ Ned had asked his father years later over a drink, when their relationship had matured into something worth the occasional tending it received. ‘You just left. I’d done nothing wrong.’

He’d not realised until then that the hurt remained so close to the surface, but his father had laughed.

‘Well, of course you hadn’t. It was never about you.’ Ned wondered if this was meant to be reassuring. ‘I suppose I assumed you were too young to be told what was going on and your mother could make up something, some story that would satisfy you. God, I don’t know. It was a long time ago now.’

When Ned had reported this conversation to his mother, looking forward to her reaction to her ex-husband’s blasé dismissal of his perennial absence from his son’s childhood and teenage years, she’d only uttered two words, but they seemed to heave themselves all the way up from her stomach. ‘Huh! Coward.’

It had been a long-held belief, a vow really, that Ned would be a better father to his own children, if he had any, than his father had been. He would always be there for them, not just on the end of a phone but physically; they would not lack his love and attention, and he would not miss any of the subtle changes in them as they grew up. He would not be around only for the landmark occasions but for all the humdrum moments too, like trying to understand their maths homework and slobbing together in front of the TV. As if everything was in his full control, and no one would ever snatch the reigns from his grasp, sending his fine plan careering into the ditch.

Varvaara’s parents, over from Estonia to help with the initial move to Glasgow, were already in the people carrier they’d hired for the trip, and Ned appreciated them quietly removing themselves from the scene. He slid the two suitcases into the car and stepped back, trying to wipe his sweaty hands on his jeans in an unobtrusive manner.

‘Right then.’ He glanced at his watch, the numbers making no sense to him, and barely stopped himself from slapping his hands together. Don’t make such heavy weather of it, he advised himself. Just keep your dignity, man. It can’t be that hard. Divorcing fathers wave their children off all the time. You don’t see them falling apart in the middle of the street.

He finally looked down at his son, standing uncertainly a few feet away, while Varvaara waited by the car, and as soon as their eyes met, their faces crumpled with emotion at the same time, before they burst into inappropriate laughter, having always shared a sense of the ridiculous.

Ned reached down and tucked Miles into his embrace, rocking his shuddering form to and fro while they both tried to sob as quietly as possible. Neither of them had a tissue.

‘All right?’ he murmured finally and Miles nodded into his jumper. ‘Good boy. Off you go then, my darling.’ He gently unhooked his son’s fingers and glanced up at Varvaara, who was looking away with tears raining down her face, no help at all. ‘Go on.’

He assisted them both into the unfamiliar car in silence, all three of them incapable of further speech. Varvaara’s parents waved to him as they drove off and her mother opened the window to say something, but it was in Estonian and so all he could decipher was the affection.

Back inside the house, he stood for a while, feeling dazed with tears and utterly drained, with the empty rooms and the rest of the day yawning before him. Sod it, he’d go and have a nap. Shut everything out for a while. Deal with it later.

Upstairs, he paused before Miles’ room and shut the door softly without entering. The early afternoon sunshine was now flooding through the skylight in his own room, and he stopped in his tracks to gaze around in astonishment at the glowing verdant world that greeted him, where twenty-six ferns had migrated the short distance along the landing to look after him.

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