I play my grandmother’s memory loss in a game for closeness.
‘Gene Richards,’ she says. ‘I was thinking about him the other day.’
‘He wasn’t at the funeral, was he?’ I say, because we had this conversation when I called in yesterday, and I want to both want to speed over it and humour her about the things she still finds important.
She frets, as a woman of a certain generation who has had only sons and who has, as a result, only daughters-in-law.
‘If I’m sick, who will care for me?’ She asks and flicks through the television channels with the remote, as if there might be an answer on the screen. I reach out and take her hand in mine.
‘I will,’ I say. She shrugs.
My great-aunt, my grandmother’s sister, sang in their brothers’ band. They went round the local dance halls, playing the hits of the day while couples jitterbugged and drank warm, sweaty glasses of gin and lemonade. My grandmother liked dancing with the Americans because they knew the best moves. They all walked home in splintering groups, and kissed in moonlit doorways, thinking that the world might end tomorrow.
Not all the Americans left at the end of the war. Some of them married my grandmother’s friends. One great-uncle brought home a French girl. My grandmother stopped work at the local factory and helped her sister in the local shop. After marriage, there was no time for my great-aunt to sing.
‘I miss her,’ says my grandmother, and I nod along with her to show a sympathy I don’t feel. My great-aunt died before I was born. Something like a heart attack; she screamed, and her tongue stuck out, and her eyes went black, and then she was gone. My grandmother drove for a solid nine hours to make it there to help her nieces lay her out.
They had three brothers, and they’re all dead now too. Saxophone, piano and accordion laid down and covering in dust. When my grandmother hears music, she cries. Every note is a memory, and not every memory is welcome.
‘Make me some tea,’ I go into the kitchenette and fiddle with the power cord for the kettle. ‘I want a biscuit.’ There aren’t any in the tin, so I say I’m going to the shops, but she’s already chatting away to the presenter on the television, telling him she likes his new sweater.
When I was very small and sent to visit my grandparents, they would drive me across the Forth Road bridge. My grandda would drop me and my grandmother at the end, turn the car round, drive back over, then park and read the paper. Even on a still day, by the time my grandmother and I reached the end of the bridge my hair would be snarled into knots. My grandmother carried a comb in her handbag, and I’d stand and twitch from one foot to the other while she sorted me out. If I didn’t complain too much, I was allowed an ice-cream, even in winter. My grandda smoked woodbines, and a whirl of smoke would come out and greet us when he rolled down the window to shout his ice-cream order. It was always strawberry he wanted, but he still shouted. Then we’d sit in the car and eat our ice-creams, and then we’d drive home.
I lock my grandmother in her flat when I go out for the biscuits. It’s a brisk afternoon, so I take the long route through the park. I hopscotch on the tarmac. We haven’t walked the Forth Road bridge in years. I count the years as I jump, then soak a shoe in the wet puddle at the edge of the grass. Like a child, I’m satisfied by the sensation at first, then annoyed.
I played the flute in a marching band the summer my parents went to my grandfather’s funeral. The procession ended with fireworks I couldn’t see. The light rain and the heat made my woollen tights itch while I did as I was told and marched on the spot, staring straight ahead. The park and the bandstand are empty today when I pass them, but I scratch my leg in tribute. There’s a dog sitting by an empty bench, and it runs off when I lean down to pat it. It doesn’t come back.
The phone calls generally come at noon, but she was late today; I don’t know why.
‘I haven’t seen you for so long,’ she said. I agreed. ‘The blind in my bedroom is broken.’
‘I’ll fix it this afternoon,’ I said, and wrote on the back of my hand to remember to bring a screwdriver with me. And milk.
‘Mary wrote to me this week,’ she said, ‘but I can’t find the letter.’ That letter has been lost for at least five years now, by my reckoning.
I forgot the screwdriver. But by the time I got there she had forgotten I was coming. I wrote it in my diary for next time and washed my hand at her sink. The soap smelt of roses. I can still smell the roses on my skin now, lifting my hand to my face, and feeling how cold my nose is. Winter roses. The bushes in the park are cut back, and the trees make lace patterns against the sky. My nose is wet with the start of a cold. I sniff, and shake water off my shoe.
My room at my parents’ house is still bright yellow. My grandmother helped me paint it when my parents went away one weekend. I told her about school, and she told me about being in service at my age. It’s a rare memory. Sometimes I think I’ve invented it, that I wanted something to hang on to now she has retreated into the past.
I leave an uneven line of footprints leading up to the shop. On the way back, I can still feel the creeping damp up the side of my sock, but the shoe doesn’t leave a wet mark.
*first published online in Notes From The Underground in 2010, and as an audio download by Project 50