Sunday lunch, 1970s. Two little girls dressed in crimplene best, their parents and grandparents, sit around a chicken that sighs with lemon, garlic and sage. The older of the sisters puts a spoonful of vegetables from each Pyrex dish onto her plate and mashes everything together with a good slug of giblet gravy. The younger girl watches carefully and does the same; this week Sunday lunch is at home, so they are exempt from the grandmother’s scolding over their fussings. Lunch formally begins with the grandmother’s cry of ‘save me the parson’s nose,’ and ends when the chicken carcass – already stripped of flesh and limbs (legs for the men, wings for the little girls) – has its wishbone removed. The grandfather shows the girls how to hook their little fingers around the greasy branch of bone, and they pull.
A council house, 1970s. Small and snug. Pass through the front room to the back kitchen where the grandmother has brawn steaming away on the stove; rice pudding in the oven; loaves of soft white bread cooling on the side. The grandfather is at the kitchen table peeling apples – he lets the granddaughters eat the long strings of peel – to sit underneath the pastry she rolls. Outside is a lawn just big enough for the swing, and a veg patch that only ever produces brussels sprouts and nasturtiums, both covered in fat green caterpillars called cabbage whites. Upstairs, two bedrooms. In contrast to their personalities, the grandfather’s room is mean, austere – hard dark-wood bed and drawers – while the grandmother’s room is indulgent; in the far distance stands a voluptuous bed, overflowing with feathers and eiderdowns, like The Princess and the Pea and just as inaccessible.
Saturday, 1970s. The granddaughters sit on the grandfather’s lap and style his hair, which is silver and slicked with brylcreem so that it stands up, lies down or curls to their will. When it is just so, the three sit quietly and watch The Pink Panther. Quietly, at least, until the grandfather reaches for one of the girls, ‘come here and let me squeeze you into a little jelly,’ and both girls squeal with laughter until they hear the grandmother’s shouts from the kitchen. The younger one knows she is his favourite. The older one knows she is his favourite too.
Autumn, late 1980s. The mother sits in a nursing home opposite the grandfather – her adored father – whom she is losing to Alzheimer’s. His left eye is black from a room-mate’s fist and when he stands, his unbuttoned trousers fall, revealing a lack of underwear. He looks down at his genitals, then up at his daughter and he smiles at her.
Winter 1990. The grandmother stares at her husband’s coffin with a look that goes beyond loss to lost: pure purposelessness. Within a month, their coffins lie side-by-side in a snow-swept churchyard.
Spring 1991. The smallest of the granddaughters, now a young woman, stares through the kitchen window, gazes at a beautiful bruise of crocuses as she washes dishes. What happens, happens in a second. It gnaws at her guts, creeps up her windpipe and bursts into a sob once it reaches the air; knocks her to the ground. The only words she has are ‘it’s not for his death, it’s for his life,’ but she can’t make the words fit with the self-pity that overwhelms her.
Newquay, July 1993. After a Friday night spent trailing bleach-locked surfers around the inns of Newquay town, the two granddaughters walk along the beach. The moon shines on the waves and the skiffle of the sand is calming. They walk from the Tolcarne beach huts to the harbour, talking about their childhood, the grandfather in particular. With cider-loose tongues they compare fears, inklings, fleeting impressions: circumstantial evidence, but sitting there on the harbour wall they find him guilty and a new phase of questions is released: what exactly had happened; who else had it happened to; who else knew?
April 1995. The younger granddaughter, wearing a white satin dress and matching Doc Martens, sits at the top table next to her new husband, who is chatting to his new Mother-in-law. ‘Is Jackie your older sister?’ he asks, diplomatically. ‘Younger,’ she replies, ‘and dafter. You know she says that our dad abused us? Silly woman.’
November 1995. The mother listens to the granddaughters. She cries, ‘no, don’t spoil my memory of him.’ The older daughter puts a comforting arm around her mother. The younger daughter watches carefully until she can’t; she closes her eyes, strokes her growing belly and tries to concentrate on what is curled up inside. The mother says, ‘I thought you would be safe, he didn’t start with us until we were old enough.’
March 1996. The younger granddaughter gives birth to a daughter. For the first time she feels connected to her own body, is proud of what it can do. She keeps the cot next to her bedside for as long as she can, and when it is finally moved to the nursery, she listens for the creak of the wrong door when her husband visits the bathroom in the night; she feels guilty but she knows the consequences of blind trust.
Family barbeque, Summer 2007. The family sit around a table loaded with burgers, halloumi kebabs and rice salad. The mother talks to Lily, her niece’s daughter, who is visiting from overseas and who asks the mother about the grandparents; Lily says her own mother (she knew she was the grandfather’s favourite, too) and grandmother don’t talk much about family history. The mother is happy to fill in details. The grandmother was a cold mother, she argues, no love to spare; affection they got from their dad. Great with kids, he was, a real modern caring dad, ‘I still miss him,’ says the mother, ‘after all this time.’ The younger granddaughter wants to stand up and shout out, but she knows that the secret does not belong to her; it is shared between the whole family, so she is voiceless against the mother’s propaganda.
* * *
I wake sometimes in the middle of the night: mouth open; jaw shifting; no noise.
* * *
Every morning I cross the road in the same spot and every morning I have the same premonition; this anticipation of a car hitting me, scooping me up and over the roof and dumping me off the back of the boot. I feel the impact of the bumper on my thighs, the knocking of my stability, the whoosh of flight and the full force of landing on my face. This is the worst bit, the landing. First, everything seems ok – just for that split second it takes for messages to get to the brain – then a mouth full of teeth and blood. I never get to feel the pain of the crumpled body, the broken bones. Just as I am dealing with the loss of my teeth, the kerb materializes underfoot; I am safe and the premonition will have to wait for tomorrow.
* * *
This is the story of my life. It started on the central reservation in the middle of the dual carriageway as I walked to work on my 39th birthday.
The grassed strip between the uphill traffic and the downhill traffic is patrolled by cherry blossom trees. On my 39th birthday, I noticed that one of the trees was far taller than its fellows. The winter morning sun was shining so viciously through the bare branches that – absorbed as I was in the McFly album I’d loaded onto my iPod as a birthday treat – I stopped, narrowed my eyes and cupped my palm over my brows. My head drew back to follow the line of the branches that now reached up into the sky, so high I couldn’t see the tips.
Startled, I looked around.
I unplugged one ear and cocked my head at the tree.
‘You down there!’
I squinted harder up into the canopy, looking for the source of the calls. A creak of the branches was followed by a soft turf thud, and a man appeared from behind the trunk. He was backlit by the sun’s rays so that I could not see his face, which was, in any case, mostly hidden behind large dark glasses.
‘Hello?’ I said.
‘Howya? Lovely morning, wha?’
Wild hair ebbed and flowed with the traffic and he twirled a white cane.
‘Are you blind? Maybe I can help you across?’
‘Och, just a wee bit old. I see better in the dark, come out at night, like the stars and I count them.’ He tapped my ear with the cane and continued, ‘McFly, wha? Ah well, in the right mood I can listen to anything – even the washing machine – and get into it. Not literally of course, she would object to that, Mrs Bartolozzi is my great friend but friendship has its limits, don’t you think. Thoughts on Kate Bush?’
‘I really should be getting to work.’
‘OK, chat again another, wha?’
I threw him a dismissive smile and walked to the edge of the grassy strip. As I looked up the hill, checking for car-shaped shadows in the sun-blindness, he came and stood beside me, took my hand and gently pushed me forwards.
‘Go on, it’s ok.’
‘But you’re not even looking.’
‘You can’t even see!’
I can hear no traffic. His hand is warm, I didn’t expect that, I tend to avoid old men and over-familiarity makes me uneasy so what… why am I even thinking of letting a blind old man guide me across the-
The far kerb was underfoot before I knew it.
As I walked home that evening, music drifted from the top branches of the tree and a note was pinned to the trunk:
McFly woman, nice to meet you. Tell me what you like about McFly?
I laughed, and shouted up, ‘it’s the music! I took my daughter to see them, they were great. Listen, it’s my birthday today and I have Black Forest Brownies left from work, I’m leaving one for you.’
‘They sound sumptuous. Thanks – and happy birthday – Mrs Domestic Goddess.’
‘You’re welcome, Mr…?’
‘OK Mister, I have to go or I’ll be late for my own party. See you!’
He was there again the following week.
‘Hey DG,’ he said, and tapped my headphones with his cane, ‘Kate Bush, wha?’
‘Hello Mister. How is Mrs Bartolozzi? It’s not her making that noise up there is it?’
‘A growling, like an animal in pain, and… a tinkling piano?’
‘Rude. It’s Tom Waits I’m listening to.’
‘I think I need my ears syringed.’
‘At first I thought like you, my dear, everybody does. But it’s worth getting to like Tom Waits, promise. Now, time for work, lickety split.’
Again the sun’s glare obscured my view. He reached for my hand and guided me forwards.
I can hear no traffic. He has a dependable voice, his accent is creamy-soft, but just because he got it right last time, it was probably plain luck, but this time… he is a blind old man who lives up a tree, jeez, why am I listening to him, and why should I listen to Tom Waits, why should I get to like it, either I do or I don’t and I don’t-
The far kerb was underfoot before I knew it.
Spring came, raspberry-sherbet blossom was followed by bronze leafbuds which opened into a shimmering canopy. I often heard his music now as I passed by. Sometimes we would swap notes, or I would shout up to him, and if he was not busy he would shout back down in reply. One evening as I walked home, I smelled delicious smells that reminded me of Sunday lunches. I shouted up to him, ‘hey Mister, are you becoming a domestic god?’
‘Domestic reminds me of dogs, wha,’ he chuckled. ‘It’s T.C.Y., page 146, sage chicken. Must get on.’
I went home and searched my bookshelves for The Cookery Year: a forgotten classic from the 1970s, I thought I was the only person who still used it. I flipped through to page 146, and there – between Chicken Livers with Grapes and Peking Duck – was Chicken Breasts with Sage.
Next morning there was no music, so I pinned a note:
Mister, do you realise that our mutual ownership of TCY binds us; our souls are destined to be entwined forever. Have a good weekend. Rachel.
The music continued, but I didn’t hear from him for a while, until one Monday morning when the tall grass was a triumph of green over the dandelions that had seized the yellow baton from fading daffodils. I had to jump to reach the lowest branch of the tree, the end of which poked through a piece of paper:
PS Rachel is a nice name.
The grass on the strip was mown: and again. The bronze leaves rusted and fell. My fortieth birthday came around and he was waiting under the skeleton of the tree.
‘Happy Birthday. Here’s a tape of music you should listen to.’
‘I bet your mate Waits is on there, just to make my day worse. It’s horrible, I’m nearly old, and apart from a failed marriage and two amazing children, what have I done?’
‘Come sit down, wha?’
We sat on the cold ground, rested our backs against the dappled silver trunk.
‘I always meant to go back to my education, so I’ve decided; I’m going to do a Maths degree. Just for fun, mind.’
‘You sure? But why Maths? It’ll eat up all your time, my dear.’
‘Isn’t it worthy of my time? I love numbers, they can bring mystery, beauty, comedy and truth. Or so I’ve heard.’
‘Tell me what you find interesting about numbers; I’m interested in your interest…’
‘Interesting about numbers? That’s like asking what’s so good about music! I don’t know much yet, but I want to know more.’
‘Euclid is said to be the most beautiful.’
‘That’s the guy with the prime numbers, right? A while ago I read an explanation over and over until I got it; took me a while but it was cool when I did. They’re never going to find a pattern to prime numbers, though, are they? Surely, by their very nature they are random?’
‘Now you’re thinking like a mathematician!’
‘How does a mathematician think?’
‘Curious about what’s in the dark room.’
‘That’s cool, who said that?’
‘I just did, you deaf? Come on now, don’t want to be late for work.’
We scrambled up and stood at the edge of the grassy haven.
‘Enjoy your birthday, DG old girl.’
‘Thanks, Mister. Remember me to Mrs Bartolozzi.’
He took my hand, waited for a car to pass, then lightly pushed me forwards.
‘You’ll be fine.’
I can hear no traffic. I think it will be fine, 1, 2, 3, 5, I can still feel the warmth of his hand, 7, 11, 13, it’ll be ok, 17, 19, 23, I’ll be fine, 29, 31-
The far kerb was underfoot before I knew it.
The year ended, another started. Throughout the year, we continued to exchange shouts, notes and music, but he didn’t appear again until my 41st birthday.
His cane whirled around my earphones as I unplugged them.
‘Ha! Tom Waits, wha!’
‘Blame the shuffle,’ I smiled. ‘I’m 41.’
‘How is that?’
‘Better, I think. How old are you?’
‘OK, if you’re going to be coy at least tell me when your birthday is?’
‘I forget. I think I wrote it on that note last week, the one I may have neglected to remember to post. Shame, it explained a lot.’
‘A lot of what?’
‘Yes. Here’s a book you should read.’
‘Short stories, delightful.’
‘Thanks, but isn’t he a Russian writer? A bit intellectual for me.’
‘A writer for adults. I think you are old enough now, but you could start with his children’s story, Kashtanka.’
‘He wrote a children’s story?’
‘Kashtanka is a wee doggie who is treated cruelly by her master. When they lose each other, a kind stranger finds Kashtanka lying alone and starving; he takes her home to his menagerie, names her Auntie. Auntie lives a comfortable, easy life, with a goose, a pig and a cat. When Ivan Ivanitch – the goose – dies, Auntie is chosen as his replacement in the animal fair, to perform tricks with Fyodor Timofeyitch – the cat. During the performance, Auntie hears a familiar voice from the audience: “Kashtanka! Strike me dead, it is Kashtanka. Kashtanka! Here!” So-’
‘Her old master – she doesn’t go back to him?’
‘Read the book, tell me what you think of it.’
‘Oh, Mister, you are impossible!’
‘Happy Birthday, DG.’
‘OK, it’s time for work anyway; give you a rest from my wittering.’
‘We don’t witter, we communicate about important matters. I love it.’
‘I love it too.’
He led me to the kerb, squeezed my hand, slowly guided me forward.
‘It’s ok,’ he whispered.
I can hear no traffic. Why would a dog go back to a master who mistreated her, was she just obedient or was it a choice, maybe she didn’t like performing, or an easy life just wasn’t what she –
The far kerb was underfoot before I knew it.
It was weeks before I heard from him again. The cherry blossom was still wrapped tight in the promise of buds when a note appeared:
Hey Rachel, you surviving or thriving?
I wrote back:
I missed you, Mister. I’m enjoying Chekov. Hope you are well. Enjoy the spring.
I pinned my note to the trunk, along with a posy of buds. On the morning the first petals emerged, I found a star chart under a stone at the foot of the trunk. On the back was scrawled:
I suppose that you are at sleep just now.
Well here, the stars are out and I got some great sounds going,
But it’s nearly six and the sky is brightening.
I wish you could be up here, just five minutes to hear what you would say.
Our letters grew both in frequency and in length. His words prodded at my brain, helped me tame my thoughts and corral them into tidy paragraphs.
One summer morning, I found the tree covered in scribbles of paper like a second flush of blossom. One autumn day there was a crossword he’d devised for me. Then it was winter, and my birthday: Van Morrison roared from the treetop and a shadow shuffled around below, twirling his cane to the music.
‘42,’ I said, ‘I’m 42.’
‘Nice number. Happy Birthday, Rach.’
‘Numbers are fine, but I’m finding them too rigid, no grey areas. Certainty is what drew me to Maths, but now I’m 42, I think it’s about time I had an opinion.’
‘Quite right. Hope I tried to steer you away from the Maths path from the start.’
‘You don’t want to end up a disillusioned ex-Maths teacher too, wha.’
‘You were a Maths teacher?’
‘For a wee while. After my physics degree, I was confused, I’d spent most of my time there buried in Rimaud and Baudelaire:
‘Qu’est-ce que c’est, Monsieur?’
‘It’s from Correspondences, about mixing senses; symbolism and metaphor, quite embarrassing how much of it I remember. So after I graduated I did a couple of years teaching Maths. Breathing space, really.’
‘And what did you decide to do?’
‘Can’t remember, but it didn’t work. Ended up in a job that’s so not me, like a dog on two legs.’
‘Is that why she went back to her old master – because her new life felt unnatural?’
‘Or because she was a dog and that’s what dogs do? I wasn’t disappointed. So what are you going to do about your Maths, my dear?’
‘Change over to the Arts.’
‘Good call. Thought about creative writing?’
‘Writing I’m getting better at, creative might be a problem.’
‘Could be a huge problem if you wanted it to be,’ he chuckled. ‘Or you might surprise yourself. I wrote a storyette the other day about a 42 year-old woman padding barefoot round a vicarage in the depths of a starless night, carrying a candle, kind of sleepwalking. She didn’t see the tormented circus bear behind the tall clock, but just as the crazed animal was about to strike, she stabbed it in the neck with a huge lethal hypodermic.’
‘When we first met, I imagined a similarly-tortured genius, working on Important Matters. Some mornings, a scruffy little bird would flutter up and twitter away a while. Often he would carry on, engrossed in his work. But occasionally he would hear her, look up from his papers and – charmed by the simplicity of her song – he would whistle along a little.’
‘Baudelaire would be impressed.’
I laughed. ‘Thanks Mister!’
‘And before it sails off into the unsaid, two amazing children is quite an achievement. Watch them like a lioness, Rachel.’
‘Of course. OK, off to work, you. Lickety split. Mrs B’s been busy and I got a stack of ironing.’
We stood side by side at the edge of the central reservation in the middle of the duel carriageway. He squeezed my hand, then let me go.
The far kerb was underfoot before I knew it.
* * *
I never saw him again. Over the next year, on a seldom sometimes, the growl of Tom Waits or Van Morrison might hang on the wheeze of the traffic. A couple of times I pinned a note to the cherry tree, where it remained for days, weeks, and when my words finally disappeared, I couldn’t be sure if he had read them; maybe they’d been stolen away by the wind like the blossom in springtime. Although… once, on a snow-silent morning at the end of 2011, as I trudged across the whiteness between the grimy slush of the carriageways, I noticed that the Christmas card I’d left was gone and ‘good luck’ was written in the snow around the base of the trunk.
I used to wake in the middle of the night: mouth open; jaw shifting; no noise. I don’t anymore.
I never told him about my eyes; I wanted to tell him my eyes are green and that I used to look in the mirror and see flint-green eyes set in a spilt-milk face, but since that day back in December 2007, they have become softer, at ease – like yesterday’s asparagus mousse – and they are open.