Here is a bit of magical realism for a sunny day.
The cards she kept
After the funeral, we went back to the house where she had always lived.
It smelled faintly of Apple Blossom perfume by Helena Rubenstein, mingled with the acrid undertone of smoke, the ceiling stained with 60 years on two packets a day. (She still managed three a day even when her lungs had gone and she had to use the nebuliser every morning. In her hospital bed when she knew she was going she begged the nurse for a last smoke, but the nurse said no. She was too weak to go and stand outside by herself.)
There had only been two other people at the boneyard. Apparently the cousin of my father, and her husband. I’d never met her. My father and she had spent a lot of time together as children, but lost touch as adults. I couldn’t stop looking at the ears of the woman, like Ernst Blofeld she had no lobes. She had her hair cropped short. I remarked to my sister that if I lacked earlobes I would grow my hair long.
We ate sandwiches, and drank tea, which tasted as if the milk was off. While they talked about the old days and how they would keep in touch, my sister and I sat in the kitchen drinking granny’s sickly-strong, home-made wine. Jennifer is single and on somewhat of a downer about it, as I was for a long time before Remy and me got together. I think there is something in this family, some inherited deficit of emotional capacity that makes it difficult for us to sustain relationships. I recall one instance of my father hugging me when I was about six, and I think I only recall it because it was so awkward and so rare. I have suggested to Jen that she go on the internet, as unlike me, she has not been lucky enough to fall for a work colleague.
We all dealt with the loss in different ways. Or not. None of us cried at the funeral. They said the Lord’s Prayer. I was angry about that as to my knowledge my grandmother had no beliefs, or maybe I am projecting my own convictions (or lack of them) onto her. The funeral director said that when he was doing the research for the eulogy, (some research, managed to get my grandfather’s name wrong, though it was written on the headstone we were standing in front of,) he had discovered that in a recent letter to a friend, my grandmother had confided that she didn’t think her husband, my grandfather that I never met, who died before I was born, though whom I once had a ghostly experience of, wouldn’t recognise her when she got to heaven. Maybe she was religious after all. Remy says that people get more conservative as they get older, perhaps they get more religious too. As the final judgment day approaches, maybe those that sat on the fence before start to reconsider the possibility that there might be something more. Or maybe it’s just the hopeful denial of their ending.
When I was little I used to spend a lot of my time at my granny’s. It’s not mentioned ever, but I think my mother suffered some depression when my sister was born, and for a couple of years I spent more time at granny’s than at home.
I was an arty, daydreaming child. When granny would have her lunchtime nap, I would be set some creative challenge to show her when she awoke. One time I made my own aviary in the back room using pictures copied from a Ladybird compendium of British birds. One of my favourite games was to make a spider’s web of knitting wool under the back room table, whilst she dozed in her armchair in the front room. I’m not so sure untangling the multicoloured yarns was her favourite game. One day I made a swan out of silver foil. She kept that swan for 30 years. It sat on a shelf in the kitchen, occasionally being dunked into some soapy water to get the grime off. I had wanted to put that swan into the earth with her. I made it for her and she had kept it all those years. Now an orphan and having strange thoughts, my father said he was keeping it and was going to put it into a display case. I was angry about that at the funeral, but kept quiet. Remy says I shouldn’t bottle things up, but I’m British. I bottle things up. He is half-French. I have tried to explain that makes it easier for him, but he just does a little shrug. I think sometimes he enjoys playing up to the Gallic stereotype. He had a work thing the day of the funeral, couldn’t get away.
I can only remember once ever crying in public. It was at a memorial service for the people killed on the bus bomb at Tavistock Square. I had only just started working at the university when that happened, and it was a couple of streets over from my office, but we heard the explosion. That was the first time I spoke to Remy. We were all herded into the basement where the students’ union was, pale-faced and frightened, drinking tea and watching Sky News. Whilst London stood still, frozen by a fear not seen since the days of the IRA, I was in the students’ union, drinking tea and trying to get off with a tall, slightly geeky looking half-French lecturer of Philosophy.
One year after they held a minute’s silence in Tavistock Square. I held Remy’s hand. I cried. We got married eighteen months after. We had our honeymoon in Bordeaux, where his father comes from. The first couple of years we went back to France for our anniversary, but we haven’t had the opportunity to go this year, what with Remy being made department head.
When I was a little girl, I used to dress up in my granny’s wedding dress. I didn’t wear her dress at my wedding. Somewhere along the years it had got wet and rotted. It was six months later when they were finally clearing the house that they found a box marked ‘Laura’s bottom drawer’. Back in London, I asked my mother to describe the contents to me. Inside it was a cheap stainless steel set of cutlery with red handles (the type you might get free from a petrol station if you saved up tokens,) a set of mugs, and bed linen. My mother said she’d thrown the linen away, it was yellow with nicotine. She said she thought I wouldn’t want the other bits either, they were very old fashioned and not the sort of style me and Remy like. I said to take them to a charity shop then. I didn’t understand why my granny hadn’t given them to me. Or perhaps having seen the wedding presents, having seen the way we live now in our perfect white box, I did understand why she hadn’t.
She was too proud to collect her pension. The house had been paid off and she was able to live off some investments. Nothing amazing. Just enough to get by on. And a savings account to pay her funeral costs out of. My parents are thinking of selling the house, her house, they were going to rent it out, but I don’t think my dad wants to see anyone else living there. They had to gut it, it hadn’t been touched since it was newly built. Everything went into a skip. The contents of her life. You couldn’t give them away. I hadn’t thought of her as poor, as she was always so neatly turned out. But the clothes were always the same, patched and mended invisibly. It didn’t occur to 11-year old me we were all a bit poor, with my smart school uniform paid for by my Government Assisted Place.
It was one of the times when she was asleep in the front room on her afternoon nap that I encountered my grandfather. I had been looking through the dressing table, I was allowed to put her jewellery on but not to try on makeup. I liked to sit under the dressing table, draped in pearls (not real, I bit them to see,) pretending it was a ship’s cabin and I had been kidnapped by pirates on the high sea. Suddenly I was filled with an incredible sense of sadness and drawn into the room where my grandfather used to have his office, now a spare bedroom. I smelt pipe smoke, I felt someone there, but I wasn’t scared. I couldn’t stop the tears running as I looked out the window over the playing fields where they had walked their dog, Bertie, 30 years earlier. I thought I saw a black lab in the distance, bounding up to a man smoking a cigar. He looked at me and waved. I wiped my eyes with a sleeve and when I looked up the dog and the man were gone.
There was a box in the back room containing every single card we had ever sent her. My father broke down for the first time when he found the cards he had made his mother as a child. There were cards from me and Jen too. My scrawling childish handwriting being replaced by neatly typed letters when I had got my first typewriter, then the word processed letters I had sent her when I went to university, their number decreasing as I spent longer away.
Jen doesn’t like Remy. His not coming to the funeral didn’t help matters. She says there is something she doesn’t trust about him. She’d had a few drinks, she wasn’t thinking straight, she said he’d made a play for her at our wedding. I told her she must have mistaken his European manner. When I got back to London, I decided to talk to him about having a baby. I want to call her Lydia after my granny. I told Remy we were not getting any younger and if we were going to have children that we better start thinking seriously about it. He gave me one of those shrugs and kissed me. But a proper kiss, like he hasn’t given me in a while. I plan to start taking folic acid immediately.
We used to go on holidays to Weston-Super-Mare. Just me and my granny. There are pictures of me wearing flared jeans and a stripy top sitting on the sand in front of the paddling pool. I think they’ve knocked that pool down now. We would go and sit on the sanddunes all day, with a packed lunch. I would wander off to the tunnels in the gorse between the dunes and the golf course. I would spend hours sliding down the channels probably created by rabbits and other furry things. Then we would go to the ice-cream stand and I would have a 99 flake.
My sister has decided to steal my life. Jennifer is pregnant by a man she used to go out with when she was at college. They broke up at least sixteen years ago, but she tracked him down on the internet. Had the internet not existed she wouldn’t even have thought of doing something like that, but the internet allows you to go back and rake things up. As far as I’m aware she didn’t even particularly like him when she used to go out with him. My father is delighted, Jennifer has moved into my grandmother’s house and she and her new-old boyfriend have started an extensive program of modernisation to get it ready for the baby. Didn’t it occur to them I might like to live there?
A colleague has gone off longterm sick and it’s been ever so busy at work. I haven’t been sleeping well. Remy has been working long hours. Sometimes he doesn’t get in till after I’ve gone to bed and then he’ll sleep on the futon in the spare room.
One of those nights when he hadn’t come in I had a dream. I was standing at the edge of the playing fields. I saw a black labrador in the distance, bounding up to a couple arm-in-arm. A neatly-dressed woman and a man smoking a cigar. They waved at me and I felt so happy to see them together that I started crying. I wiped my eyes with my sleeve and when I looked up they were gone.
I woke up and I could smell the faint smell of Apple Blossom by Helena Rubenstein. Remy had come in and was sitting on the side of the bed.
‘You’re crying’, he said.
I wiped my eyes with my pyjama sleeve and smiled. ‘I dreamed about my granny. She’s all right.’
‘I’ve let work get on top of me, I’m so sorry I couldn’t go with you to the funeral,’ he said, ‘I’ve been thinking about us, about what you said, you’re right… we should call her Lydia,’ he whispered and kissed my forehead.
(c) Sam Hall, 2011. This is a story which may be part of a set of stories about a family.