Back in the graveyard, I still didn’t know her, and she was still waiting for an answer to her question.
-Dunno, I said, eloquently.
-She was a good woman, your Grandma.
-You didn’t kill her, did you? I replied, only half kidding. I wouldn’t put total obliteration of our bloodline past my mother.
-Well, what a thing to say! she exclaimed. Indignation didn’t suit her as well as black did. With a now standardized lack of grace, she reeled back, seating herself on a gravestone. Just as abruptly, she realised what she had done and pitched forward again, wiping herself hurriedly. As though she could catch her death. Smoothing down her own skirt now, I noted, a walking model of rehabilitation. Struggling to recover her poise, she fumbled in her bag for cigarettes, before realising that too was a no-no. She made one of those facial gestures that in a comic-book would have a thought bubble saying “harrumph.” above it.
-What were you doing going to see her in the home? I asked.
-I...used to look in on her from time to time, mostly while you were away, she said. She still had the cigarette in her hand, drew it up to her mouth at one point before stopping herself. She gave a rueful little chuckle, like a child molester’s afterthought -you almost caught me once, getting back off your last trip.
Freshly cut flowers in my Grandma’s room. I got back from Africa early, moved my flight forward a couple of days. I did it because I couldn’t face being alone after those days with Amber in Cape Town. The nurses weren’t expecting me. I remembered the startled receptionist on my first returning visit, eyes darting from me to the car park behind.
-Why would you do that? I asked.
-Someone had to, she said.
I could have done with a cigarette myself at that point. The old cow still had a few moves on her, still knew just the requisite amount of force needed to drive a sharpened HB2 pencil right into your Achilles heel. Not so deft with the backtracking though:
-I think it’s really great, Dan, all the places you’ve been. It’s more than most folk round here do, she said, unconvincingly. She sounded all wrong then, a hyena modulating its pitch to cough up a miaow, – your dad would’ve...
-Would’ve what? I interjected, and she said nothing.
-WOULD’VE WHAT? I repeated, in capitals this time.
She said nothing.
-If you can’t finish your sentence we can go ask him, I said levelly, gesturing across the churchyard –he’s just over there, spinning quite rapidly now probably.
Finishing his own sentence, in a plot that she ghost wrote.
-What’s that supposed to mean? she asked, and when I said nothing she sighed and started walking over towards a nearby bench, fumbling for her cigarettes again already.
-I think we need to talk, she said, from there. The cheap click of a Clipper lighter a cheap trick of diversion. In spite of my every bio-rhythm ebbing in the opposite direction on hearing that all too woefully familiar phrase, I found myself following in her wake sleepily.
Once there, I sat at the same distance someone might sit from a man wearing a beard made of bees. I saw myself from above, listening to everything she had to say, passing no comment throughout. A bronze statue of a seated figure on a graveyard bench. My mother, the tourist, next to him, blowing cigarette smoke and innuendo in his hardened and immobile face.
When she seemed to have finished, when I could take no more, I stood and walked away from her, without pausing to look in her direction.
-All this anger, Dan, she called to the irate, wakening hairs on the back of my neck – you need to let it go.
She didn’t come to the reception. She wasn’t invited. By the time I got there, the small, attendant crowd were situated comfortably in the house. The Old Sailor Bert had marshalled them well, navigated them towards the port. And the sherry. His young wife, my Grandma’s friend Cassie, mutinied on him many years ago, leaving him all at sea. She grew lonely while he was away, during one of those long Northern winters where the days are really just nights you have to live through. Except that she couldn’t. She sat out on a deckchair in the backyard one evening and emptied her wrists onto the tarmac, not wishing to mess up the house. I wouldn’t be so churlish as to suggest that Bert never looked at another woman for the rest of his life, but I’m certain every time he did it was Cassie’s face he saw first.
He shook my hand for the fourth time that day, with the same over-firm shake favoured by rugby players and Long IsIand industrialists. I regarded his still brawny arms. Saw the naval tattoos, inky tachometers of his travel that had so bewitched me as a child, straining through his cheap, white shirt.
-Alright, lad? he asked.
-Yep, I replied.
That’s how Yorkshire men open up to each other.
Bert was my best friend there then, fifty years my senior, and yet I still found myself wondering if I could beat him in a fight. He had brought radishes from his allotment, for some reason I couldn’t entirely fathom. I received them with a dull nod of non-comprehension, still processing the information I had received from my mother in the graveyard. Molly from two doors down had brought a fruitcake. Some brought fastidious smiles. Others, I didn’t even know. Obituary hawks, scanning The Green Paper every week, looking for some reason to dust down their wide brimmed hats and polish up their patent leather shoes.
Everyone spoke very highly of her, everyone was polite and respectful. But I couldn’t help keep thinking that there were elderly people in my Grandma’s house that weren’t my Grandma, and that she wouldn’t set foot here or anywhere else ever again. A downbeat masquerade ball.
Upstairs, in a bedroom drawer, I sensed my passport humming into life, its worn pages flicking back and forth restlessly, like it was some enchanted spellbook.
I re-boiled the kettle so many times that it began whistling in anguish. Two nurses from the home arrived, looking strangely amiss in black outfits with no upside down watches pinned to their breast pockets. I approached them with the notion of speaking to them about my mother’s visits to their workplace. But, halfway there, I decided that I didn’t want to consider her or what she had told me anymore. Not on that day.
When I closed in, I noticed that the younger of the two was crying all the tears I hadn’t yet been able to muster. Not overly given to tactility, I awkwardly gave her arm what I hoped was a reassuring squeeze. A slight misjudgement of force, and all I succeeded in doing was making her jump. After her splashdown we exchanged platitudes like flapjack recipes for a while, before the older lady leaned in closer.
-Can I ask you a question? she enquired.
Every time someone asks that, it always means it’s something you don’t want to hear. But it had been a day for that. I nodded reluctantly.
-Why have you put radishes in the fruit bowl? she asked.
Let it go, my mother said. Fine advice for a pallbearer! Fine advice coming from a woman who probably only prised her chipped varnish talons from a bottle of Buckfast a couple of months ago! But it wasn’t even my mother speaking. Just a few words from her sponsor, whoever’s goodwill she was now leeching from.
I am not my mother’s son, and I will not fall for her lies. She was little more than the leaky vessel that bore me for nine months and tossed me overboard for twenty some years. I am the grandson of Lucy Roberts, whose body I interred, whose long life was the epitome of perseverance. The heart of a lion, beating through the ribcage of a sparrow. A caring woman whose delicate fingers moulded bullets that strafed the bodies of Nazis. I am the son of Alfie Roberts, whose body I also interred, who descended into hell every night to put fish fingers on my plate. A father who went down fighting, spitting tarred sputum into the face of an uncaring God. I am the by-product of a dozen broken foster homes, homes that I mostly broke. I am the square peg forced into the round hole of the system. I didn’t fit. I smashed the system. I am a killer of magpies. I am a warrior, blooded in a hundred street fights across the world. Maybe not a hundred, and I probably lost more than I won. But my grip will neither weaken nor falter. I am the spirit of our dog Sabre incarnate, a bullish terrier ragging, ragging, ragging away at life.
I will never let it go.