DON'T PUT OFF UNTIL TOMORROW.
Having disembarked from the ferry, Tommy Tomson and his nineteen-year old daughter Tilly, walk along the pier in silence. After a few minutes he stops and stares at the Solent. Tilly stands just behind him gazing over his shoulder.
"You can see it from here," Tommy says, pointing with his thin finger. "Just over there, through those trees." Tilly strains her eyes, but can only see trees. "There, look, there," he says his voice slightly cut off by the breeze. Tilly follows where his bony finger indicates and spies a bell-tower amongst the trees.
"Yes, "Tilly says," yes, I can see it now." Tommy nods and holds on to the rail. His breath is hard to catch. He closes his eyes for a few moments and breathes deeply. Tilly touches her father's arm and hopes he'll be able to complete what he calls his last pilgrimage.
"That's where we have to get to," Tommy says after getting his breath back. "We'll walk to the Esplanade and then get a bus," he adds, releasing the rail and turning to face Tilly.
"We could have taken the train to the Esplanade," Tilly says, linking her arm through her father's.
" No," Tommy says," I want to walk it. It's all part of the pilgrimage. I can see the Solent from here and that's special to me."
They walk on in silence for a few more minutes. Tommy looking at the sea and Tilly at her father's face, drawn, thin and pale. The cancer is taking hold, she knows, it is an effort, she can see, for him, but he was determinded to come, she muses sadly, squeezing his arm next to her's gently. "I use to love walking along here," he interjects suddenly as if he'd just remembered it, as if the memory had just entered his mind. He feels his daughter's arm squeeze his and feels reassured. "And the town don't seem to have changed much," he adds as the town looms nearer. "Your mother and I brought you and Sophie here years back when you were kids. Don't suppose you remember it. You were only babies," he says, thinking of the years passing and the how his daughters had grown. Tilly shakes her head, but says nothing. She can't remember any trip here, but wishes she could, if only to comfort him and share that time with him.
"You really love it here, don't you, Dad?" Tilly asks, although she knows the answer before he utters a word.
"Yes," Tommy replies quietly. "It's my sanctuary." The words seem to linger on the air for a number of moments like a sparrow hawk before the breeze carries them away. He pauses again, turns and stares back at the sea. "Don't put off until tomorrow, Tilly, what you can do today," he says staring out at the Solent.
"Mr Macawber says something like that in David Copperfield," Tilly says, standing beside her father and watching him staring at the sea.
"So he does," Tommy says. "Good advice, good advice. Wish I'd taken it when I could," he adds, lowering his head and looking down at the pier. "But I've left it too late now. Too late."
"What have you left too late, Dad?" Tilly asks.
"Things I wanted to do," Tommy says softly, as if afraid to mutter the words to loud. Tilly squeezes his arm closer still.
"What kind of things?" Tilly asks, watching as he turns round and begins to walk on towards the Esplanade. Tommy sniffs and murmurs a few inaudible sounds.
"Going to Italy," he says slowly as if each syllable were an effort.
"I've always wanted to go to Italy. Rome, Florence and Venice, were my places to go...Rome for my faith, Florence for its art and Venice for...Doesn't matter now," he says. Tilly senses something lost in him. Something nagging him like an ill-tempered wife or ghosts of his unfulfilled dreams. They walk on again in silence. Tommy breathing deeply and Tilly wishing she knew how to comfort him with his lost dreams.
Eventually they reach the Esplanade. Tommy wants to get a bus, but Tilly suggests a taxi. Too dear, he says; what does it matter, Tilly replies, and pushes him gently inside a waiting cab. The taxi speeds off and they both sit back. After a few minutes in silence, Tommy says:" I use to walk this. Walked all the way to the Abbey. But as you get older, you can't do the things you use to love doing," he adds sadly. Tilly takes his right hand in hers and gives it a gentle squeeze. He looks out of the window and she gazes at him wanting to hug his now fragile frame. "I wish I could see you with someone before I die," Tommy says, without turning round. "Sophie's got herself a bloke, but you, you never seem to have anyone," he says, as if reproaching her, censuring her for not finding someone before he died. Tilly senses his disappointment and wishes she could tell him, but feels unable to say. "Don't you like men or something," he says, "or am I too good an act to follow?"
"Something like that," Tilly says. "Not met the right one yet," she informs, her voice straining.
"Sophie was always having boys round," Tommy says, remembering a different face, week in week out. "But you never brought any home with you," he adds, turning round and looking at her. "Not one, blighter." Tilly looks at his face and then his hazel, now greyish, eyes.
"My time will come, I expect," Tilly suggests, hopefully.
"Not before I go it won't," Tommy says, turning away again and returning his gaze to the passing view.
"I can't just conjure up somebody out of thin air, Dad," Tilly replies, releasing her father's hand and putting both her hands together in her lap, linked as if in prayer. "I'm happy as I am," she informs softly as if she were now talking to a child.
"That's something, I suppose," Tommy concedes without turning from the window. Silence sits between them and embraces then both with its cold arms. Tommy lifts his head as the bell-tower comes in to view. "There it is," he informs breathlessly. And points up at the bell-tower seen across the way.
The taxi stops at the entrance of the drive. They both get out and Tilly pays the fare. They watch momentarily as the taxi speeds off back to the town. Tommy turns round and looks up the drive that leads to the abbey.
"It's not far," Tommy says. "But I like to walk this bit. These trees were just small when I first came here back in 1938." Tilly follows behind him as they walk up the drive. She watches with concern as he walks slowly and breathlessly ahead of her.
"Wait," Tilly says, "here, take my arm." And Tommy links his thin arm through his daughter's arm and leans against her as they walk on.
Tilly glances sideways at her father beside her and sees how pleased he seems as they walk slowly along the drive. She feels an urge to lift him up and carry him the rest of the way, but instead holds him against her gently for support.
"Thirty years since I first came here," Tommy says as they go through the black iron gates that lead in to the abbey courtyard.
"I stayed here for a short while, but then the war came and I joined up." He pauses for breath and looks up at the bell-tower just beside them. Tilly looks around at the abbey in front of her and tries to imagine her father being here all those years before. "When I was demobbed in 1946, I'd already met your mother and so never did come back. Although I did make a brief visit in 1954 and saw a few of the monks I had known," he says quietly as they walk to the church. Tilly smiles, but says nothing. She looks about her and experiences the peacefulness of the place as they enter the church. Tommy stands and looks around him with a sense of deep satisfaction. He seems absorbed into the place as if part of him had stayed behind years ago and had now rejoined him.
"It's so quiet," Tilly whispers. Tommy nods slowly, but seems too far away to make reply. They sit on pews and gaze around the church. The silence is serene. Peacefulness settles upon them like snowflakes.
Tommy closes his eyes. He breathes in slowly to catch the smell of incense and wood. He hears only the sound of his bones creaking and his labouring breath. So long ago, he muses to himself. So long ago since I was here. And he tries to recall himself as a young man sitting with the other monks in the choir stalls up further. I suppose if I'd not met Thelma, I'd have come back, he muses quietly, wondering if he would have stayed or not, or whether he'd have left even if the war hadn't come along. But the thoughts in his head don't conclude anything and he moves on to the last time he visited. When was it? he asks himself. He tries to recall and then says quietly, just above a whisper, "Ten years ago."
"What was ten years ago?" Tilly asks softly, her voice echoing thinly against the walls nearby.
"Since I was here last," Tommy replies in a whisper. Tilly says nothing. She sees that her father still has his eyes closed and wonders what is on his mind as he sits quiet and motionless. They sit for ten minutes or so and then Tommy says, "I wonder if old Father Warlow is still here?" They rise up and leave the church and Tilly waits by the church while her father goes to the porter's lodge to ask about the old monk. After five minutes he returns and walks back to the church.
"He's gone to Rome," Tommy says.
"Rome?" Tilly says. She can see disappointment in her father's face. He seems tired, she muses with concern. Tommy nods his head and walks to the seat in the courtyard.
"Gone for a month, so the young monk says in there," Tommy informs.
He sits back on the seat and gazes up at the abbey before them. They sit in silence, looking at the abbey, each lost in their own deep thoughts. After a short interval of silence, Tommy says, "I'm just going to the monk's cemetery, won't be long."
"Can't I come?" Tilly asks.
"Women not allowed in that area," Tommy replies. "Won't be long." And he disappears off out of sight and Tilly sits and waits.
The monk's cemetery is just as he remembers it. Except there are more graves and tombstones now. He moves along the gravel path looking at each grave in turn. Occasionally he stops at a grave of one he remembers and mutters a short prayer. The sight of so many dead makes him realize that he soon, no doubt, would be laid to rest like these. But not here, he muses sadly, not here. And now a breeze touches against him and he feels suddenly cold and weak. I must get back to Tilly, he tells himself, turning back away from the cemetery. It seems a long way back. Each footstep is such an effort, he senses, such an effort. The sky seems to darken and he wishes the distance was not so far. After a few minutes he reaches the gate and struggles to open it. He sees his daughter on the seat and waves to her. Come, he says inaudibly, come. But she doesn't seem to see. He waves. He waves. He waves.
Tilly feels the breeze start up again. She embraces herself with her arms for warmth. The trees sway about her like mocking giants, their long arms reaching for the sky, as if scratching the dark-blue texture. On her right a smaller tree sways, its small branches waving in the breeze. Then, suddenly she realizes that it isn't a tree; it's her father waving, his thin arms above his head scratching the dark-blueness about him. She runs and just as she reaches him he collapses. The ground receives him before she can. He lies looking up at her with his hazel-grey eyes, muttering.
"Dad, dad," Tilly cries holding his head in her arms. "What happened?" She looks down at him and sees his lips move, but she can't understand what he is saying. She holds him closer and listens intently.
"Don't put off things, Tilly," Tommy whispers. "Don't put things off until tomorrow." He breathes deeply and looks up at his daughter's distressed face. How young she looks, he muses, how young.
Other faces surround him now. Over his daughter's shoulder, other faces appear. Voices mutter. And the darkened sky seems to fall like a hushed breath.