The jangling bell above the door yanks my gaze across the counter of the chemist where I work, and a knot twists in my ribcage at the sight of my mother’s pentagenarian boyfriend. The public-school bearing and aquiline nose suggest a cultured dignity I know to be at odds with his penchant for guessing your bra-size. A barrel-chest and long legs give him the appearance of a pompous M&M. Smoothing the wrinkle of dislike curling my own nose I walk around the counter to meet him, self-conscious of my nubile body, face (I hope) unreadable as granite.
“Hi. What are you doing here?”
He stops a few metres inside the door and takes in the room, smoke-yellowed eyes and alcoholic rosacea gentrified by the cravat blooming beneath his chin. Mustard cords, silver-rimmed specs and a plummy accent complete the guise of well-to-do squire.
His history – what little we knew – spanned an ex-wife, three children, and a girlfriend whose stroke and confinement to a wheelchair had him looking for his next mark. None of this concerned my mother, for whom the slightest whiff of wealth and breeding was like catnip. Pronouncing him “Dishy”, she enthusiastically volunteered.
He got his feet under the table, smooth as any con artist, through an incident laconically labelled an ‘act of God’ by his motor insurance company… but that’s a story for another day.
This particular afternoon he’s a messenger, a go-between. He looks down the bridge of his nose at me and begins:
“Your mother wanted me to tell you your grandfather passed away.”
No “maybe you’d better sit down‘, or “I’m sorry to have to tell you this.” For someone given to using fifty words when one would do he sure made it punchy.
I don’t remember anything else after that. The jangle of his exit prompted me to carry that simple sentence, gingerly as an over-filled bucket, back to the counter where I repeated it to Rose, my colleague, and excused myself to the staff-room upstairs. There, I sit on one of the mismatched chairs circling the low table piled with dog-eared magazines. My father’s parents died before I was born so, with just one set of grandparents, I feel a door to the past slamming shut, a generation halved. Through the tall sash window beside me the afternoon sun streams in unnoticed.
This is how Anne-Marie from Perfume & Skincare finds me – spaced out among the stale sandwich smells and lengthening shadows, thoughts on the nature of mortality punctuated by the less lofty ‘why the fuck couldn’t she have told me herself?’
I never imagined this shock would be dwarfed by the knockout blow my mother had in store for me later.
The air in the church is thick with the smell of dusty prayer books and hassock-covers, the olfactory badge of all God’s period homes – a mixture of antiquity and neglect – that, for reasons I can’t fathom, lends credence to faith.
Pewed and passive, I sit next to my sisters listening with ever-rising eyebrows to a funeral service for a man whose name I don’t recognise. Part of me worries I’m swept up in a tragi-comic farce (“Family attends funeral for wrong man!” screams Burton Herald) as each former golfing buddy or cycling pal talks about someone I’ve never heard of before.
I scan the backs of heads for my Nana’s tight curls but her face, when I glimpse it, is stony with the washed-out grief of the Left Behind. It’s not until my mother stands to deliver her eulogy that I let myself believe this is genuine and not some surreal dark comedy.
Still, if things already seem bizarre, what happens after the service tears the tissue of my already threadbare memory so completely that I don’t recall the wake, with aunts, uncles and cousins we rarely saw, who knew me only as an apple-cheeked, wild-haired child; a nostalgic perception far removed from the heavy-drinking, self-razoring, pot-smoking, twenty-something beneath the manners and mourning clothes.
I can’t be sure exactly when the kicker came – in my mind we’re edging out through the heavy church doors, but memory is subjective, a working manuscript imagination annotates with each replay; how to write about it without self deceit? This truth might be singular to no-one but me but it’s mine nonetheless. I know because I feel it, and though the backdrop might blur the content is sharp as broken glass, still capable of slicing open old wounds – or at the very least, prompting me to scratch the scars – even after all these years.
I turn to my mother in the drift of black-clad respectfulness seeping into the churchyard and the questions spill out, echoed by my sisters,
“Who was _?” (I can’t, for the life of me, remember the imposter name)
“I thought we were at the wrong funeral!”
“Why didn’t they call him Owen?”
“Oh, that was a nickname he was known to his friends by,” she counters airily. I weigh the probability of this as she continues, her dismissive ‘haven’t-I-told-you-this-before?’ tone sounding faintly like a rebuke,
“Of course he wasn’t your real grandfather. Your real grandfather was a Colonel in the army.”
This strategy is typical of her: convey volatile information in an incongruous setting with enough nonchalance that your listeners either, a) assume they must have misheard, or b) question their own sanity in the struggle to process mismatched content and delivery.
Meanwhile, the fantastical tale tumbles out…
Following a dalliance with said Colonel, whose wife, children, and command of men left him with time on his hands, my grandmother became pregnant – with my mother. To avert a scandal our gallant Colonel hooked her up with his batman – my grandfather – who agreed to marry her and raise the child as his own.
This, says my mother, is why her sister has always resented her (she did??). Secret weekend visits to a fairytale mansion where she played (in remarkable domestic contentment given the circumstances) with half-siblings and was sent home with gifts whose origins could not be divulged to her empty-handed younger sibling.
What to do with this ill-timed, Jerry Springer-worthy confession? I need the robust reality of the past to make a ghost of the present, so I retreat into memories of a tall, lean man who smelled of tobacco and Brylcreem – thick, auburn hair slicked back, the odd curl springing free when he bent to scratch Patchy, the yappy, anti-social Jack Russell my grandparents doted on – “Careful, eel nip yer!”
Back then, when I was that apple-cheeked, wild-haired child, he called me ‘Duckie’ (and my father ‘a mardy sod’ for always arguing the best route when we made the long journey to visit – cross-channel at first, then later, across social strata from ‘down South’ to the brink of ‘up North’). His sinewy forearms wore faded ink from his time overseas during the war; Jesus on the cross bled blue into brown leathery skin.
He loved his garden, pointing out plants as I trailed him on pudgy pre-school legs up the black, crunchy path (at the old house – Craven Street? Shobnall?), that left charcoal smears and scarlet-beaded scrapes on your knees if you fell. At the top, if the wind blew a certain way, a little wooden man on a pole cranked a bright red and yellow windmill and I held my breath against the yeasty smell of the nearby brewery and Marmite factory until we regained the miasma of cooking smells by the coal-shed at the back door that smelled the same whatever the meal.
When I was twelve, and boarding school emptied for a rare weekend exeat, it was he who came to collect me, who drove me back to Springfield Close, to my Nana’s face-powder dusted hugs and home cooking, to patrol the twilight with him and Patchy, and to sleep in a room whose Toucan with a pint of Guinness lamp distracted me from a strange bed long enough for sleep to come.
And it was my Grandad who wrote to comfort the teenage me when a once-in-a-lifetime school art trip to Florence was screwed over by passport/parent problems. I still have that letter – the effort it cost him to write it evident in every word wrestled to the page, every shaky curlicue and wobbly sweep of the pen. Once forthright and athletic, age and arthritis had rendered his hands incapable, leaving him at the mercy of jam-jars.
I don’t know why my mother said what she did, people save the shrapnel from their own wounds and sometimes they blast you with it, but a part of my childhood was shot through the heart – burnt to ashes more effectively than any crematorium. And for what? She never mentioned it again.
Twenty years on and I know I never really believed the Colonel story but the flicker of doubt still flares sometimes, when I’m spreading toast and hear my mother’s voice reminding me how my grandad ‘liked some bread with his jam’, or form-filling at the doctor’s – ‘Tick the box if you or anyone in your family has suffered from the following: Anaemia, Angina, Arthritis, Cancer, Diabetes… ‘ It feeds a growing fear that when I’m finally compelled to seek answers there’ll be no-one left to give me any. Time, so boundless at first blush, is a shrinking prison, and it now seems to me ever more important to know the truth, to render the furrows ploughed into memory as accurately and authentically as possible.
How else can you know who you are?
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