Father’s Day

by Chris Cottom

I was ten minutes early but Dad was waiting on the bench in his tiny front garden. ‘I’ve been enjoying the sunshine,’ he said, as if I’d never twigged that his true joy was punctuality. After brushing a non-existent speck from his cavalry twills, he pushed down on his walking-stick to get to his feet. He squared his shoulders as best he could, trying to conjure the six-footer he’d once been. His saggy cheeks were freshly shaved, he smelt carbolic-clean, and his crinkly white hair shone with the bay rum with which he’d dressed it daily for at least the last fifty years.

‘Happy Father’s Day,’ I said, holding out the present I’d got him. As he tucked it under his arm, I thought maybe he wanted to shake hands.

‘Thanks Tim.’

‘Not asking me in? I need a wee.’

He unlocked the door and I ran up the stairs to the pink bathroom, poking my head into the galley kitchen afterwards. As I expected, the draining-board was empty; he’d have washed and dried his breakfast things, having eschewed the dishwasher since Mum died, claiming it took him a week to fill it. The place had the reassuring tang of disinfectant. The cleaners were doing a good job.


‘Nice new motor,’ Dad said, unbuttoning his blue blazer before pulling his seatbelt across, careful to avoid his breast pocket with its red silk handkerchief crisply folded into three ascending peaks. ‘What do you get to the gallon?’

‘Haven’t a clue. You’re not going to make me calculate cost per trip, are you?’

‘Didn’t do you any harm, did it? A spot of mental arithmetic, now and again.’

No holiday had been complete without it.

‘It’s harder now the pumps are in litres,’ I said. I didn’t tell him my employers paid all my petrol anyway. Just as I hadn’t wanted to embarrass him years ago when I’d realised, aged twenty-eight, that my salary was higher than his had ever been.

My present was on his lap. ‘Aren’t you going to open it?’

‘I guess it’s a CD.’

He’d always been a classical man, sharing with Mum a lifelong love of choral works. ‘That’s right,’ I said, ‘Deep Purple’s Greatest Hits.’

His smile told me he’d accepted the joke, as I’d known he would. He slipped his gnarly thumb under the edge of the wrapping paper.

‘The Complete English Anthems. The Tallis Scholars. Delightful. Can you put it on?’

‘Sorry, they don’t put CD players in cars nowadays.’

‘Cheap Japanese rubbish,’ he said with a laugh.

‘I’ll see if I can find the Tallis on my phone.’

‘Not while you’re driving, please.’

‘How’ve you been, anyway?’

‘Fine. Absolutely fine. Perhaps we could have some music, though.’

I stopped, searched my phone and found Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Before I let him listen to it, I wanted to know what the consultant had said about how he was doing.

‘Dad, tell me–’

‘Are we going or not?’ he said, checking his wristwatch.

I said nothing, touched ‘play’ and turned the volume up. I wanted this to be a happy day out. We were off to have a look round his old college.


We did the Park & Ride from Headington into Oxford. Dad’s eyes were everywhere, particularly when we crossed Magdalen Bridge into what he called the ‘city proper’. We got out at the Examination Schools and walked back to Merton Street. The Eastgate Hotel on the corner, Dad told me, was where he’d got a taste for Watney’s bottled brown ale. He pointed out Number 21, where he assured me Tolkien had lived, and, on the corner, the incongruously modernist house of the Warden.

‘He and his wife would have all the freshmen to dinner in batches,’ he said. ‘She had a buzzer on the underside of the table to summon the minion from the kitchen to clear the plates. They liked taking their holidays in the South of France. There was some rumour this meant nudist camps.’

As the occasional car rumbled over the cobbles, we ambled along the pavement beneath the high flinty wall, over which, Dad said, generations of stop-out Mertonians had been forced to clamber.

‘Eventually the university gave up curfews as a bad job. Got rid of the bulldogs.’


‘Their private police force. Wore bowler hats. You were in big trouble if they caught you. Before my time. We all had keys to the late gate here.’

We strolled past the entrance to the college and stepped across the road to stare up at the chapel, its huge square tower dominating the little street.

‘I went up there with your mother once,’ Dad said, softly and without looking at me. ‘On May Day, about five o’clock in the morning, a group of us from the choral society. None of us had gone to bed the night before. The ladies all wore summer dresses, with flowers in their hair. As the sun rose, we sang madrigals to welcome the first day of spring. Afterwards we took a punt out and had breakfast on the Cherwell, just me and your mum; she’d made a picnic. It was still misty before it warmed up.’

In the entranceway to Merton a painted wooden board proclaimed that the college grounds would open to visitors at two-thirty. We’d made good time on the M40; it wasn’t even one o’clock.

‘You’re not a visitor, you’re an alumni,’ I told Dad.

‘Alumnus, actually. Alumni’s the plural. There’s only one of me.’

‘Alumnus, old Mert, whatever.’

I stepped around the sign and into the porters’ lodge. Three walls were covered with pigeonholes, bulging with flyers, envelopes and small packets. At a small counter behind the glassed-in fourth wall sat a man in late middle-age wearing a jacket and tie. He looked up from his Daily Express and slid his wooden-framed window aside.

‘Can I help you sir?’

I explained that my father was an old Mertonian, and we’d like to look around.

‘I’m afraid you’ll have to come back after two-thirty, sir.’

‘Even though he’s a member of the college?’

‘Even though he’s a former member of the college, yes sir.’

‘One other thing. Dad told me that, as an undergraduate, he could go up the chapel tower. I know how much he’d love to go up one last time, before … before it’s too hard for him.’

‘I’m sorry sir, members of the public are no longer permitted access to the tower. Health and safety, you see.’

I sensed that Dad had stepped into the lodge behind me. I leaned in a little closer and kept my voice low.

‘He’s seventy-nine and not … I mean I don’t think we’ll be able to make another trip. If there’s any way …’

I wanted to say I’d make a donation to a rebuilding fund of their choice, or endow a bookcase of first editions, or slip this jobsworth a fifty.

Instead I said, ‘It’s Father’s Day.’

The porter looked past me at Dad, who was standing a few steps back, spruce in his summer-weight blazer, crisp white shirt and Merton tie.

‘Well … Come back at two-thirty. No promises, but I’ll see what we can do.’ He even smiled as he slid his window shut.

Dad followed as I negotiated our way out through a gaggle of elderly tourists. On the pavement, an Asian couple wore matching raincoats, securely belted against the sunshine.

‘What were you talking about?’ Dad said.

‘Nothing. Just asking him where we might get some lunch.’


Dad had equipped himself with his stout brown brogues, re-soled over decades and polished to parade-ground perfection. But we still made slow progress on the short walk past Corpus Christi and Oriel to The Bear, a rabbit warren of a pub boasting similar antiquity to Merton itself. Its walls and even its ceilings were eccentrically bedecked with snippets of men’s ties, closely packed in huge glass display panels, each exhibit meticulously labelled in sometimes faded handwriting.

Dad laboured over his pint and his ploughman’s, his arthritic fingers struggling to balance

cheddar and pickle onto his baguette, which then proved a challenge for his dentures.

‘They’ll have a Merton tie here,’ he said, dropping crumbs on his own.

‘I’m sure they will.’

‘Merton and this place have been neighbours forever. I should think it kicked off the collection.’

‘Don’t ask them to show you,’ I said. ‘It’ll take them until Armageddon to find it.’

He pushed his plate away, half his lunch untouched.

‘I’m not terribly hungry,’ he said, wiping his mouth.

‘Dad, tell me. What did the consultant say?’

‘I told you. I’m doing fine.’


He looked at his watch and reached for his stick.

‘Didn’t that sign say the college opened at two-thirty?’


Dad clicked his tongue when we got back to Merton at two-fifteen to find tourists already queuing. As we shuffled to the back of the line, the porter stepped out onto the pavement.

‘There’s the young man you were talking to,’ Dad said.

‘You need your eyes tested. That chap isn’t young, not in anybody’s book.’

‘Of course he is. Can’t be much more than sixty.’

The porter beckoned us and took us into his glass-screened Holy of Holies. He sat my father down at his little desk and explained that, if we would both kindly sign a disclaimer, he would let us have the key to the chapel tower. ‘Would you like me to take you over there?’ he said.

‘I know the way, thanks,’ my father said. ‘Through Mob Quad. It’s only sixty-one years since I matriculated.’

‘Two things, sir. Do take care, some of the steps are quite steep, as I’m sure you’ll remember. And the lights are automatic now, they’re movement-sensitive. Oh, and Happy Father’s Day, sir. May I ask what you were reading when you were up?’

‘Biological Sciences,’ Dad said. ‘All completely out of date and useless now.’ He laughed. ‘Like me.’


We stopped outside the chapel, and Dad pointed out a line of gargoyles jutting out from the roof of the nave.

‘See those. The originals wore away so they modelled the replacements on the college First Eight after a heavy night in the bar of the Junior Common Room.’


‘No of course not. Come on, we can look down on them from the top.’

The key was longer than my hand. The air smelt musty when I opened the low arched door to the tower. A row of lights flickered on as promised, revealing a formidable flight of narrow stairs with no handrail. I made Dad go first, in case he toppled backwards. We crawled up the gritty steps, pausing frequently for a breather, and I wished I’d suggested a stroll around the famous, and considerably less hazardous, Fellows Garden.

At last, after traversing a long and mercifully flat passage, and then twisting and turning higher and higher, we emerged through a door onto the roof. We squinted in the sudden brightness and gulped the fresh air from the breeze. The panorama was magnificent, with the university spread out on three sides. Dad had hardly got his breath back before he was pointing out the domed circular library.

‘The Radcliffe Camera,’ he said. ‘Houses the Bodleian Library.’

‘I know.’ It’d got to be the most famous building in Oxford.

‘The Sheldonian Theatre’s behind it, to the left.’

Here, he told me, Mum had sung in a performance of Britten’s War Requiem, conducted by the composer himself. Then, using his stick to make sure I could follow his precise line, he methodically named every honey-coloured college we could see across the city.

After ten minutes or so, he ran out of landmarks and stayed leaning on the parapet, gazing north over the city, quiet and still. I left him to his memories and looked south across the tranquil open space of Christ Church Meadow to where the river, the Isis, glinted in the sun under a cloudless blue sky.

Eventually, having checked that Dad had seen enough, I led the way down, the lights reassuringly switching themselves on, section by section. Halfway across the single horizontal stage of our cool but largely airless journey, we were startled by a soprano voice floating up from far below. I realised we were standing above the roof of the nave, exactly in the centre. As the sound soared, I understood why experts praised this chapel’s acoustics so highly, with its choral evensong featuring regularly on Radio 3. Suddenly, the singer stopped and I could just make out somebody speaking.

‘Must be choir practice,’ I whispered.

Dad nodded, then the same voice spiralled up again, repeating the bars we’d already heard. Another soprano joined in, followed by another and another and then the altos, the tenors and basses and, finally, the organ thundering. I stood transfixed, unable to make out any words, but swallowed up in the music as if I were part of it. The lights clicked off and we were left with a faint glimmer from a gap along the top of the wall to our left, which must have been how the sound was reaching us from the chapel floor. High in the confined passageway, every massive piece of masonry hewn by hand and hauled up here six centuries earlier, we stayed as still as the stones themselves, listening for a few minutes until, abruptly, the unseen celestial choir stopped. The organ’s deep bass notes reverberated before fading slowly away, leaving this ancient place once more in silence.

I heard Dad take a deep breath. When I moved, the lights jerked back on and I saw him leaning heavily on his stick with both hands. I stepped across and carefully lifted off his glasses before pulling his fastidiously folded handkerchief from his top pocket. Then, with the sound of the soprano rising once again, I dabbed away his tears.

Originally published in Cutting It Short: The Bournemouth Writing Prize 2022 Shortlist. Click here to read Chris Cottom’s reflection on writing about caregiving.

Chris Cottom lives in the north west of England, and once wrote insurance words. He’s won the Retreat West Flash Fiction Prize, the LoveReading Very Short Story People’s Choice Award, and competitions with Shooter Flash and On The Premises. His stories have been published by The Centifictionist, Streetcake, Story Nook, Secret Attic, Parracombe Prize, London Lit Lab, Hysteria, Free Flash Fiction, Flash Flood, Cranked Anvil, Bournemouth Writing Prize, Apricot Press, and Anansi Archive, and broadcast on BBC Radio Leeds.

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