By Leslie Norris (published in Sliding: Short Stories, 1976)
Earlier, when Barry had left the house to go to the game, an overnight frost had still been thick on the roads, but the brisk April sun had soon dispersed it, and now he could feel the spring warmth on his back through the thick tweed of his coat. His left arm was beginning to stiffen up where he’d jarred it in a tackle, but it was nothing serious. He flexed his shoulders against the tightness of his jacket and was surprised again by the unexpected weight of his muscles, the thickening strength of his body. A few years back, he thought, he had been a small, unimportant boy, one of a swarming gang laughing and jostling to school, hardly aware that he possessed an identity. But time had transformed him. He walked solidly now, and often alone. He was tall, strongly made, his hands and feet were adult and heavy, the rooms in which all his life he’d moved had grown too small for him. Sometimes a devouring restlessness drove him from the house to walk long distances in the dark. He hardly understood how it had happened. Amused and quiet, he walked the High Street among the morning shoppers.
He saw Jackie Bevan across the road and remembered how, when they were both six years old, Jackie had swallowed a pin. The flustered teachers had clucked about Jackie as he stood there, bawling, cheeks awash with tears, his nose wet. But now Jackie was tall and suave, his thick, pale hair sleekly tailored, his gray suit enviable. He was talking to a girl as golden as a daffodil.
“Hey, hey!” called Jackie. “How’s the athlete, how’s Barry boy?”
He waved a graceful hand at Barry.
“Come and talk to Sue,” he said.
Barry shifted his bag to his left hand and walked over, forming in his mind the answers he’d make to Jackie’s questions.
“Did we win?” Jackie asked. “Was the old Barry Stanford magic in glittering evidence yet once more this morning? Were the invaders sent hunched and silent back to their hovels in the hills? What was the score? Give us an epic account, Barry, without modesty or delay. This is Sue, by the way.”
“I’ve seen you about,” the girl said.
“You could hardly miss him,” said Jackie. “Four men, roped together, spent a week climbing him-they thought he was Everest. He ought to carry a warning beacon, he’s a danger to aircraft.”
“Silly.” said the girl, smiling at Jackie. ‘‘He’s not much taller than you are.”
She had a nice voice too.
“We won,” Barry said. “Seventeen points to three, and it was a good game. The ground was hard, though.”
He could think of nothing else to say.
“Let’s all go for a frivolous cup of coffee,” Jackie said. “Let’s celebrate your safe return from the rough fields of victory. We could pour libations all over the floor for you.”
“I don’t think so,” Barry said. “Thanks. I’ll go straight home.”
“Okay,” said Jackie, rocking on his heels so that the sun could shine on his smile. “How’s your father?”
“No better,” Barry said. “He’s not going to get better.”
“Yes, well,” said Jackie, serious and uncomfortable, “tell him my mother and father ask about him.”
“I will,” Barry promised. “He’ll be pleased.”
Barry dropped the bag in the front hall and moved into the room which had been the dining room until his father’s illness. His father lay in the white bed, his long body gaunt, his still head scarcely denting the pillow. He seemed asleep, thin blue lids covering his eyes, but when Barry turned away he spoke.
“Hullo. son,” he said. “Did you win?”
His voice was a dry, light rustling, hardly louder than the breath which carried it. Its sound moved Barry to a compassion that almost unmanned him, but he stepped close to the bed and looked down at the dying man.
"Yes,” he said. ‘‘We won fairly easily. It was a good game.”
His father lay with his eyes closed, inert, his breath irregular and shallow.
“Did you score?” he asked.
“Twice,” Barry said. “I had a try in each half.”
He thought of the easy certainty with which he’d caught the ball before his second try; casually, almost arrogantly he had taken it on the tips of his fingers, on his full burst for the line, breaking the fullback’s tackle. Nobody could have stopped him. But watching his father’s weakness he felt humble and ashamed, as if the morning’s game, its urgency and effort, was not worth talking about. His father’s face, fine-skinned and pallid, carried a dark stubble of beard, almost a week’s growth, and his obstinate, strong hair stuck out over his brow.
“Good,” said his father, after a long pause. “I’m glad it was a good game.”
Barry’s mother bustled about the kitchen, a tempest of orderly energy.
“Your father’s not well,” she said. “He’s down today, feels depressed. He’s a particular man, your father. He feels dirty with all that beard on him.”
She slammed shut the stove door.
“Mr. Cleaver was supposed to come up and shave him,” she said, “and that was three days ago. Little things have always worried your father, every detail must be perfect for him.”
Barry filled a glass with milk from the refrigerator: He was very thirsty.
“I’ll shave him,” he said.
His mother stopped, her head on one side.
“Do you think you can?” she asked. “He’d like it if you can.”
“I can do it,” Barry said.
He washed his hands as carefully as a surgeon. His father’s razor was in a blue leather case, hinged at the broad edge and with one hinge broken. Barry unfastened the clasp and took out the razor. It had not been properly cleaned after its last use and lather had stiffened into hard yellow rectangles between the teeth of the guard. There were water-shaped rust stains, brown as chocolate, on the surface of the blade. Barry removed it, throwing it in the wastebin. He washed the razor until it glistened, and dried it on a soft towel, polishing the thin handle, rubbing its metal head to a glittering shine. He took a new blade from its waxed envelope, the paper clinging to the thin metal. The blade was smooth and flexible to the touch, the little angles of its cutting clearly defined. Barry slotted it into the grip of the razor, making it snug and tight in the head.
The shaving soap, hard, white, richly aromatic, was kept in a wooden bowl. Its scent was immediately evocative and Barry could almost see his father in the days of his health, standing before his mirror, thick white lather on his face and neck. As a little boy Barry had loved the generous perfume of the soap, had waited for his father to lift the razor to his face, for one careful stroke to take away the white suds in a clean revelation of the skin. Then his father would renew the lather with a few sweeps of his brush, one with an ivory handle and the bristles worn, which he still used.
His father’s shaving mug was a thick cup, plain and serviceable. A gold line ran outside the rim of the cup, another inside, just below the lip. Its handle was large and sturdy, and the face of the mug carried a portrait of the young Queen Elizabeth II, circled by a wreath of leaves, oak perhaps, or laurel. A lion and unicorn balanced precariously on a scroll above her crowned head, and the Union Jack, the Royal Standard, and other flags were furled each side of the portrait. And beneath it all, in small black letters, ran the legend: “Coronation June 2nd 1953.” The cup was much older than Barry. A pattern of faint translucent cracks, fine as a web, had worked itself haphazardly, invisibly almost, through the white glaze. Inside, on the bottom, a few dark bristles were lying, loose and dry. Barry shook them out, then held the cup in his hand, feeling its solidness. Then he washed it ferociously, until it was clinically clean.
Methodically he set everything on a tray, razor, soap, brush, towels. Testing the hot water with a finger, he filled the mug and put that, too, on the tray. His care was absorbed, ritualistic. Satisfied that his preparations were complete, he went downstairs, carrying the tray with one hand.
His father was waiting for him. Barry set the tray on a bedside table and bent over his father, sliding an arm under the man’s thin shoulders, lifting him without effort so that he sat against the high pillows.
“You’re strong …” his father said. He was as breathless as if he’d been running.
“So are you,” said Barry.
“I was,” his father said. “I used to be strong once.”
He sat exhausted against the pillows.
“We’ll wait a bit,” Barry said.
“You could have used your electric razor,” his father said. “I expected that.”
“You wouldn’t like it,” Barry said. “You’ll get a closer shave this way.”
He placed the large towel about his father’s shoulders.
“Now,” he said, smiling down.
The water was hot in the thick cup. Barry wet the brush and worked up the lather. Gently he built up a covering of soft foam on the man's chin, on his cheeks and his stark cheekbones.
“You’re using a lot of soap,” his father said.
“Not too much,” Barry said. “You’ve got a lot of beard.”
His father lay there quietly, his wasted arms at his sides.
“It’s comforting,” he said. “You’d be surprised how comforting it is.”
Barry took up the razor, weighing it in his hand, rehearsing the angle at which he’d use it. He felt confident.
“If you have prayers to say,...” he said.
“I’ve said a lot of prayers,” his father answered.
Barry leaned over and placed the razor delicately against his father’s face, setting the head accurately on the clean line near the ear where the long hair ended. He held the razor in the tips of his fingers and drew the blade sweetly through the lather. The new edge moved light as a touch over the hardness of the upper jaw and down to the angle of the chin, sliding away the bristles so easily that Barry could not feel their release. He sighed as he shook the razor in the hot water, washing away the soap.
“How’s it going?” his father asked.
“No problem,” Barry said. “You needn’t worry.”
It was as if he had never known what his father really looked like. He was discovering under his hands the clear bones of the face and head; they became sharp and recognizable under his fingers. When he moved his father’s face a gentle inch to one side, he touched with his fingers the frail temples, the blue veins of his father’s life. With infinite and meticulous care he took away the hair from his father’s face.
“Now for your neck,” he said. “We might as well do the job properly.”
“You’ve got good hands,” his father said. “You can trust those hands, they won’t let you down.”
Barry cradled his father’s head in the crook of his left arm, so that the man could tilt back his head, exposing the throat. He brushed fresh lather under the chin and into the hollows alongside the stretched tendons. His father’s throat was fleshless and vulnerable, his head was a hard weight on the boy’s arm. Barry was filled with unreasoning protective love. He lifted the razor and began to shave.
“You don’t have to worry,” he said. “Not at all. Not about anything.”
He held his father in the bend of his strong arm and they looked at each other. Their heads were very close.
“How old are you?” his father said.
“Seventeen,” Barry said. “Near enough seventeen.”
“You’re young,” his father said, “to have this happen.”
“Not too young,” Barry said. “I’m bigger than most men.”
“I think you are,” his father said.
He leaned his head tiredly against the boy’s shoulder. He was without strength, his face was cold and smooth. He had let go all his authority, handed it over. He lay back on his pillow, knowing his weakness and his mortality, and looked at his son with wonder, with a curious humble pride.
“I won’t worry then,” he said. “About anything.”
“There’s no need,” Barry said. “Why should you worry?”
He wiped his father’s face clean of all soap with a damp towel. The smell of illness was everywhere, overpowering even the perfumed lather. Barry settled his father down and took away the shaving tools, putting them by with the same ceremonial precision with which he’d prepared them: the cleaned and glittering razor in its broken case; the soap, its bowl wiped and dried, on the shelf between the brush and the coronation mug; all free of taint. He washed his hands and scrubbed his nails. His hands were firm and broad, pink after their scrubbing. The fingers were short and strong, the little fingers slightly crooked, and soft dark hair grew on the backs of his hands and his fingers just above the knuckles. Not long ago they had been small bare hands, not very long ago.
Barry opened wide the bathroom window. Already, although it was not yet two o’clock, the sun was retreating and people were moving briskly, wrapped in their heavy coats against the cold that was to come. But now the window was full in the beam of the dying sunlight, and Barry stood there, illuminated in its golden warmth for a whole minute, knowing it would soon be gone.