Sunday, 4 December 2016

'What will survive of us is love.'



Up until the age of 18, I spent all of my summer holidays in the same place – Hull, a city in East Yorkshire, with my grandparents. We’d spend a week or two visiting places nearby – Scarborough, Whitby, Bridlington; but most of the time was spent in and around where they lived in Anlaby. We’d go to the parks, trawl the charity shops, go for picnic lunches, and all sit together around the table having buffet upon buffet of cold cuts, pork pies, boiled eggs, and all the other shit that old people wheel out when they have guests. My favourite day of the trip, every time, was our visits to a little village called Mappleton on the coast where my Grandad had grown up.

All the arrangements have been made. And the thing is, I think that Grandchildren often get a rough deal with these kinds of things. But you and I, we’ve always been good to each other, haven’t we?

No one’s heard of Mappleton, it’s one of those places that you drive straight past. And there’s nothing to do there. Just a big, cold beach, a church, a shop that still sells sweets by the pound and weighs them out on old-fashioned scales.

The reason that Mappleton was my favourite is because I knew that my favourite story was soon to come, and every time the story would start about five miles down the road from the beach, while we were still in the car – ‘I used to walk up this road, or cycle sometimes, in to the town. There’s the farm your great grandma lived on. Here’s where the soldiers pitched up tents during the war…’ a non-stop, practised monologue.

I’ve already mentioned the beach, but to come back to it – it was vast and cold. It is not pretty. There are big ugly rocks that form the cliff, and never an ice cream van or tourists or people flying kites. Just people that had been going there for years, like we had, walking up and down the stretch of sand.

When we got to the cliff where we parked the car, it was story time, at my prompt: ‘Tell me the story about the soldiers, Grandad.’

‘Well, pet. I came down on to the beach to look for shrapnel. The soldiers were stationed up and down the cliffs, and the clifftops were covered in pillboxes, waiting for an invasion. It was evening and I thought if I went down there to look on the sand that no one would see me. But as I was scrabbling around in the near dark, two soldiers pulled me up by my jumper. “What are you doing here? Get away now, or we’ll shoot you at dawn.” And I didn’t need telling twice, pet. I leapt up and ran all the way home, and I could hear them laughing with each other behind me.’

‘My Grandad nearly got shot at dawn in the War!’ I’d tell the story to my schoolfriends every year, and every year they’d listen, rapt, to my description of the beach, and the shop, and the church.

Until I was about five years old there was a leftover pillbox still teetering on the edge of the top of the cliff. A couple of years later it had fallen down to the beach as the cliff eroded, and spent the next five years quietly sinking in to the sand. The first thing my brother and I would do in those years is run up to the cliff edge and scour the beach for the box, before running down and climbing in, looking through the gaps and picking off bits of seaweed, as Grandad stood by us, pointing up at the cliffs: ‘Imagine looking up and seeing this whole clifftop covered in pillboxes. That was what is looked like in the war. They left this one as a reminder. I don’t know where they took the rest.’

Then we’d always do the same thing. Picnic on the beach if the weather wasn’t too bitter (and in the car if it was), trip to the shop for half a pound of wine gums, and up to the church where I’d play Moonlight Sonata, one of his favourites, on the piano, and he’d tell his second story.

‘Now then, this here,’ he’s stroking a wooden box that sits by the piano, which has been elegantly carved with flowers and text. ‘we bought for the church in memory of my sister. She died when she was two months old and instead of a grave marker out there we wanted to keep something in here, where it’s peaceful. I wonder what she would have been like. I hope she can hear you on that piano, pet. I hope she’s safe, wherever she is.’

There has always been a lot of sadness around us. We’ve seen some very sad times. But such happy ones too.

I’d always make us go back down the beach, for a paddle, whatever the weather, and Grandad would dry my feet on a towel he kept in the boot of the car, careful to get each grain of sand out from between my toes before I put my shoes and socks back on.

And then we’d go home, where me and Grandad would talk about all the things that we both loved: classical composers long dead, the great poets, football, plants and animals, while Grandma fussed around us, getting that 70s style buffet out on the table and making pots of tea.

I always preferred animals to people, you know.

I’m the same. You must be where I get it from then, Grandad.

‘Do you need more tea, are you thirsty? Hungry? Would you like some ice cream? I’ve got four tubs of ice cream that need eating up. Have you got any washing? I’ve got these socks for you, are they any good?’

And just at the point where I’m about to tell her to chill the fuck out my Grandad would pipe up.

‘Leave her alone, Dorothy. She doesn’t need anything. She’s always looked after herself. She’s lovely.’

She’s been very bossy today, Peter. Bossed me out of the way to change the beds and vacuum the house. She’s like her Mother.

She’s not. Leave her alone. She’s lovely.

And then we’d eat our tea and Grandad would tell me all the stories I asked for and we’d go to bed., where he’d read to me from books when I was young, until I fell asleep. And those were the best days.

Oh, Pet. It used to be me reading to you. Now look at us!

As I got older it stopped being the Summer holidays that I go and instead turned in to Christmas trips. But as I got older so did they and the trips to Mappleton were fewer and far between and suddenly they stopped. But the stories didn’t.

‘Tell me the story about the soldiers, Grandad.’

And so he would tell it again.

That story about the soldiers shooting you at dawn, Grandad. I must have heard it a hundred times. It’s my favourite.

And then I got older still, and so did they. And I’d still go to visit but now instead of going out for a potter around Hull of an afternoon we stayed inside the house, with the fire on, talking about all the things we loved and hearing Grandad’s old stories. And maybe these days were even better, because it was these days that Grandad and I became friends. Real, proper friends. And we’d talk on the phone all the time. I’d ring and if Grandma would pick up, without saying much  I’d get ‘oh, hello love. He’s in his greenhouse, hang on, I’ll take you down’ or ‘he’s in his chair listening to the cricket, hold on I’ll pass you over.’ And Grandad would stop what he was doing to listen to me and my stories, what had been going on, places I’d been, people I’d met. And I’d tell him secrets. The good secrets and the bad secrets and everything in between and he’d laugh, or give me advice, and always tell me how proud he was of me.

I don’t want to worry your Grandma. And I’m not scared of dying. But I’m pretty terrified of the pain.

I had my last visit to Grandad last week, as he lay in bed, unable to get up. He was really poorly, and so sleepy, and I cared for him.

You should have been a nurse.

The only problem with that idea, Grandad, is that I don’t like anyone apart from you.

But we still did what we knew how to do and just talked. And near the end he got upset. And he’s never been like this, my Grandad.

I’m ready to go now.

Those old men are from a generation where they don’t get upset. But everything was ending and he was sad, and he told me so, and that he wasn’t scared and he’d just miss us all so much. And I won’t tell you everything I said back to him, although we were there a while. But I can tell you how it ended.

We have all been so very lucky, Grandad. We’re all so lucky to have known each other, and to have everything we have.

You’re right, Pet. You’re right.

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