The Prodigal Robin by Louise G Cole

The Prodigal Robin

She’d been told not to be undone by the sight of the God of Thunder now much reduced by age.

But there he was, standing on the patio in faded green slippers, scattering seeds for the birds. She’d expected the white hair and the stooped shoulders, but the rest?

“He feeds the birds?” she asked Marie at her elbow. They were in the living room, looking out at their father. He was side-on to them, engrossed in the scrum of birds at his feet. He was arm’s length from a wooden bird table seething with feathered life.

“He doesn’t know you’re here, Cathy; he couldn’t have heard the taxi pull up. His hearing’s a bit iffy,” Marie went to tap the glass, but her sister caught her arm.

“No, leave it. He’ll come in when he’s ready.”

Marie raised an eyebrow, but her expression was warm. It always was, this caring little sister, thought Cathy as she followed her into the kitchen. Marie was the youngest of them, the one who’d stepped into the void left by their mother’s death.

“He’s been talking of nothing else since he heard you were coming,” Marie was saying as she filled the kettle for tea. “Honest. He’s been on about you coming to stay, all the way from Canada, for ages…” her voice trailed off as her sister craned to get a better view of the stranger feeding the birds outside.

The awkwardness between them was unexpected. After all, there’d been letters and e-mails, as well as occasional phone calls. There’d even been a few Skype sessions, where the two of them swapped stories over a grainy, jerky video link across the Atlantic miles.

But after the initial gushed greetings on the doorstep as the taxi pulled away, things became strained; the years apart seem to be hanging between them. It was like looking through a lace curtain – they could see each other, but without clarity. Neither of them knew where to start.

Marie began fussing over the tea, clattering cups and saucers, filling the milk jug, making noise to fill the emptiness, babbling about the weather, the price of tea bags and such.

Cathy was shaking her head. “I can’t believe he feeds the birds. How long has that been going on?” She made it sound like it was some pitiful affliction that they were all now forced to live with.

Marie had the tea cosy half way to the pot. “I suppose it’s a distraction for him.”

“Marie, this is Dad, we’re talking about”. Cathy was frowning now. “This is the man who would shoot pigeons and magpies and hang them on the fence to frighten the crows away – the ones he hadn’t roared at and shot as well, that is. And he’d be the first one to wring the chickens’ necks, and the goose at Christmas. And now he feeds the birds?”

Marie stared back at her sister. “Well, yes, but that was a long time ago, he’s not like that any more. Not for a long time.” She fumbled with the tea cosy.

Cathy was intrigued that the fabric cosy was in the shape of a fat ginger cat. She pointed to it: “And he used to drown the kittens – remember? He’d push the poor little bastards into the water butt and hold them down while I screamed blue murder.”

Marie shuddered, but returned her sister’s stern gaze. “I don’t remember,” she said at last. “He didn’t do any of that when I was at home. None of that nasty stuff…”

Cathy had a sudden vision of their mother, years before, standing in the kitchen with the same slightly defiant pose, with a self-contained expression that defied comment. “He’ll do what he will and you’ll either like it or lump it,” her mother’s voice echoed. Cathy swallowed hard and looked away.

Marie spoke carefully: “I told you, he’s not the man he was back then. Haven’t I been telling you all these years?” and she picked up the tea tray and headed back into the living room.

Cathy took a steadying breath and followed, trying to make allowances for the 13 years between them. She was the third of the seven children, the oldest daughter, Marie the youngest; they shared five brothers.

There were only three cups on the tray; Cathy had half expected a big scene when she’d arrived, all the brothers and sisters-in-law, nephews and nieces, the whole family come to greet the Prodigal Daughter, but she’d told Marie not to make a fuss. She shouldn’t be disappointed to be taken at her word.

Marie, the family diplomat, had probably engineered it this way. An otherwise empty house, so that Cathy could meet up with the father she’d run away from all those years ago. They could take stock of each other without the distraction of an audience.

She’d last been here 11 years ago, when she’d managed to arrive barely in time for the funeral, everything organized in a rush, west of Ireland style, two days after her mother’s unexpected death. Everyone was in shock and Cathy’s appearance had gone barely noticed amid the frenzy of mourning. Catatonic with grief, her father hadn’t acknowledged her, seeming not to see anyone or anything else either.

Cathy had slipped away and before her flight home, spent two nights in a Dublin hotel reading poetry and weeping for things that might have been.

Marie settled the tea tray on a low table and made for the patio doors. “I’ll call him in, shall I?”

Cathy composed her features into neutral. She’d come a long way for this.

With her hand on the door handle, Marie turned back. “You know, he wept this morning because his favourite bird, a little robin, has disappeared. He hasn’t seen it for days, and he was so upset,” and she stepped outside.

By the time her father appeared moments later, Cathy’s neutral expression had been replaced by incredulity. “So you feed the birds?” were her first words to him as he followed Marie into the room.

“Catherine.” His voice was as steady and dark as she remembered. “You took your time to come home,” and he brushed past her to sink into the big armchair, the most comfortable one nearest the fire, the one with the best view of the television. He looked out towards the bird table as he waited for his tea, pointedly not making eye contact.

She wasn’t sure what she’d expected; he didn’t even offer a hand to shake. No welcoming hug, no fond greeting. Old resentments began to needle as he reached out for the first cup of tea, as Marie poured. He always had to be first for everything, as if it was his God-given right as the head of the family. She was the guest here, shouldn’t the first cup be offered to the visitor?

“Dad doesn’t like his tea strong these days, so he always gets the first cup,” Marie said, sensing Cathy’s outrage. “Oops! I forgot the biscuits,” and she shot out of the room, leaving the two of them alone.

“I didn’t think you could eat biscuits,” she said at last, staring into her cup. “Not with you being a diabetic and all that.” She wanted him to know that she’d kept in touch, that she knew about him from Marie.

“They’re plain ones,” he said after a pause. “And I’ll eat them if I want to.” She looked up at him then and held his gaze. “Anyway, they’re not for me, they’re for you – our honoured guest.”

She was out of practice reading his tone and didn’t reply.

Then Marie was back in the room, bustling about, setting out a plate of rich tea biscuits and another of ginger nuts. “They’re still your favourites?” she asked, but couldn’t settle and went out again.

Two cups of tea later, urged into the guest room for a rest, Marie managed to Skype home; she wanted to share the news that her father, the man she hadn’t had a conversation with for more than 20 years, had spent 10 minutes describing in detail the antics of the wild birds in the garden.

“He says his favourite is the robin because it’s so feisty. Independent. It doesn’t feed with the others, or socialise, it likes to keep its distance. And it can be quite stroppy and aggressive.”

Melvyn was bleary eyed, but smiling, a monochrome picture of white teeth and black skin. “Sounds familiar,” he said through a yawn he couldn’t disguise across the video link.

Melvyn had only met her family the once, as a recent graduate, when she’d brought him home to tea, not revealing to anyone beforehand that he was originally from Kenya. He had a Dublin accent and his parents were well respected doctors, intellectually and socially superior to her farming crowd, so she liked to think.

Her father didn’t say a word all through tea as Melvyn chatted with her brothers about football. When he was barely out of the door, they could hear her father roaring across three counties. He’d clipped Cathy with a sharp back hander when she’d had the temerity to call him a racist. When she ran away that time, he didn’t come to find her and drag her home. Canada was already in the pipeline; a grim time in Dublin followed, and then somehow, they’d switched continents.

Now, rising noise levels downstairs drew her out to find a welcome home party had materialized. Her brothers, nephews and nieces and sisters-in-law that she’d never before met, cousins, aunties and uncles she’d almost forgotten. It was noisy and chaotic. Marie was beaming; clearly she’d been planning this.

Cathy’s jaw was beginning to ache from smiling wide at everyone. She didn’t want to be the miserable little cur of family legend; she was the exciting, bubbling success story from the other side of the Atlantic. She attached her camera to the TV and they viewed photos of home, of Melvyn, of a life quite unlike anything known around here. “Do you really have a dog named after Grandpa Henry?” asked one of the little nephews.

“Horrid Henry?” a cheer went up and she glanced across at her father, deep in conversation with one of her cousins. She wasn’t sure he’d heard. The dog was a loud, aggressive little mongrel they’d rescued, and eventually tamed, from the dog pound. It had been Melvyn who’d chosen the name.

A break in the hubbub came as someone revealed there was a match to watch, followed by a great scramble to get to the bigger screen in the next room. Marie was expecting a reaction. “Don’t mind me,” Cathy said, smiling.

At the patio windows she looked out at the birds. Behind, she didn’t hear him come in from the football, but she sensed him there, just as she used to all those years ago when he’d be waiting up for her to come home, a roaring, violent force in the shadows, insistent that life should be lived his way. And there she was, always determined to live it hers, even if it meant marrying a black man and living half way across the world.

Standing beside her, he was so close she could feel the rhythm of his breathing. Outside, a squabbling mass of sparrows and blue tits, chaffinches and goldfinches were fighting for food. And then she saw another bird, Christmas card familiar, red breasted and independent, hopping from the fence post to the washing line, away from the others, but near enough.

“Isn’t that your little robin come back?” she asked, turning at last to face her father.

About the author:

Originally from Worcestershire but now living in the west of Ireland, Louise G Cole writes short stories and poetry. She won the 2018 Hennessy Literary Award for Emerging Poetry and had a Dublin pub named in her honour (just for a weekend). In 2019 she was selected by UK Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy for publication of a poetry pamphlet, ‘Soft Touch’ in the Laureate’s Choice series. Louise is a past winner of the HE Bates Short Story Competition and has had stories and poems published in anthologies, newspapers and literary magazines in Ireland and the UK. She blogs at  where she explains the ‘G’ in her name is there to avoid unnecessary confusion with an underwear

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