My first published story, which came out in Iron magazine in the mid 1970s. It shows its age – I was still forging my voice and this has a delicate, antique flavour – but still shows qualities. I’ve never known a grandfather of my own, by the way.
One evening there was only grass in the patch behind the house. The next morning it was filled with toadstools. Grandfather arrived in our living room like that. He sprang up through the floorboards one afternoon and was instantly established.
‘This is your grandfather, Bill. He’s going to be staying with us for a while.’ Mother turned her head to my father to stress that final part. ‘You’re not to disturb him.’
It must have been his balance that was not to be disturbed, caught so neatly as it was. A rug was wrapped from his waist, along his legs, to fall folded upon the floor. Each fold rose and dropped, forming bellows to rock the man. School had just loosened the gem of the caterpillar’s transfiguration into my mind. Now it seemed such a miracle was to happen in my own home over grandfather’s cocooned legs. I listened through the crackle of the fire for the gentle, crisper sounds of grandfather’s withered skin peeling from his legs to reveal a shining youthful beauty they once had.
Nature was being cheated of all her rules to magic the process into reality. Curtains were drawn against the day, and a fire blew out its flames and heat beside grandfather’s rocking chair. ‘We have to keep your grandfather warm,’ my mother had told me. I wondered how long skin took to dry. The fire was already challenged by the sun, which slid its own distinct patterns through the curtains as summer approached.
The top half of grandfather did not change at all. Much of him was always covered of course, swathed in jackets, pullovers, mittens and scarves; but his head was ever present on top. Silver hair was sleeked back across his skull, but the head was dominated by enormous sunglasses, two black discs that trickled occasional tears to collect inside the bristle on his cheeks. The whole face was confused by a smile that never left it.
‘Why doesn’t grandfather ever talk?’ I whispered the question to my mother in the kitchen, where we spent much of our time now. The parlour had been set aside as the old man’s bedroom to save carrying him up the stairs, and the fire roared its presence in the living room so effectively any visits but for a cursory glance proved unbearable.
‘He doesn’t need to,’ mother replied, quietly, suppressing any emotions she might have felt on the matter. I kept the remark for consideration. I had never thought of talking as being a necessity.
‘What does he do then?’
‘He thinks.’ My puzzled face prompted further explanation without my asking. ‘He just plays through all the memories he’s got, I should think. You must remember he’s a very old man.’
‘What memories are they?’
‘Really, Billy. How do you expect me to be able to answer that? That’s something only your grandfather can tell you.’ The conversation was snapped to a close as mother shoved her chair back and stood up to find some new business. It was one of those arguments designed to cheat me of a resolution. Only grandfather could tell me, while he did nothing but think.
With only one course open, the matter could be quickly laid to rest. As I opened the door the heat flew in my face. The man might have been breathing flames at me himself, I felt so nervous about approaching him. Since first finding him there I had never entered the room without company. Any words spoken had been around him, and dried in my throat now they were asked to speak direct. Finally they burst out in a voice high and unfamiliar.
‘What is it you think about?’ The sentence burnt out before its close, shutting off the polite ‘sir’ that should have followed. Convinced that I had been unforgivably rude I allowed him the briefest moment to reply, then fled. Into the garden, through the gate and scampering up the hill I was eager to make the incident as unreal as possible. Looking back down at our house, the chimney stack puffing smoke out into the blue, I knew grandfather was contained. He could never follow me across a summer’s day.
I tried to avoid the living room over the next few days, and found a powerful ally in mother. ‘It’s no place for a young boy to be in this weather,’ she said, propping the back door open to leave me a clear escape. When I had to enter I sought the wealth of shadow to hide me.
Mother occasionally whirled a cloak of busyness around herself that nothing could penetrate. Blocked by one such moment I played defiant and marched straight for the living room door. Timidity took root again as I breached the door just slightly. The airs of our two worlds mingled, then drew my head in through the gap. Grandfather was rocking still. The flames conjured up the demon through his glasses, bouncing a vivid reflection where his eyes should have been. The bellows of the rug at his feet became a concertina that wheezed a voice out of his body.
‘Hello, Billy.’ It was a thin, treble voice, unlike any I had ever heard in an adult. It seemed he had found this voice to accord with mine, and it was tingling with the game. I moved in closer.
‘Come here,’ he said, patting his mitten soundlessly upon his lap. Father would have whisked me into the air and landed me on a table; this invitation showed a delicacy I did not wish to cope with. I grew brittle with horror at the very thought of touching those knees.
‘Come on.’ The rocking stopped as the mitten padded up and down. I edged nearer, reached forward to offer a handshake, and was gripped under the armpits. The strength in his hands was unexpected, the feel of two steel hooks lifting me off my feet. I was dropped, ready to hear the violent whisper of his legs as they flaked under my weight. Instead it was like landing atop a double-barred gate, and swung as wildly. The chair rocked, shocked out of its rhythm as I grasped for its arms. I drew my body in tight, perched on this man as the chair settled.
‘You asked me what I was thinking, Billy.’
I nodded into the protracted silence.
‘What do I think?’ He suggested the question to himself, hoping the words would strike some actual meaning into his mind. ‘Whatever you do, that’s what I think. That, and a great deal more. The other day, when you ran out of here?’
I had to nod again.
‘You rushed down the garden, through the gate, and flew up the hill behind us.’
My nods came more automatically now.
‘And I was with you. That rush of fresh air was blowing in my face as well as yours. I was as happy to get out of this room as you were.’
I looked at him, and he read my question.
‘No, my body was still here. That can’t run any more. But I can leave it, relive everything you and your father do now. I’ve lived both of your lives before, you see. From this chair I can play out all your dreams.’
I recognized the language. I knew it just as I knew his voice. But I still did not see. We shared the next silence without need for nods.
‘Run along now.’ A mitten patted my back. I looked up at him a while more, tried to soak in a little of what he said, then jumped down and ran away, clicking his door shut behind me. This time I went out of the front door instead, so he would not be able to follow me. I needed to be alone. I had a lot of thinking to do.
I mooned around in such an obvious dream over the next few days it took all of father’s practicality to postpone my mother’s calling a doctor. As he predicted, I soon burst into life again. My introspection had blossomed in the wrong season, and found no way to combat the vitalities of summer. Even the butterflies ceased to perplex me, and I stalked them happily with my net, swooping them off the lilac branches and into a brief, jam-jarred captivity.
Grandfather died with the summer. The fire spent itself out, curtains were flung back, windows heaved open, and a chill was forced to stream through the room. The chair was spirited away at the same time as grandfather, but probably reached no nearer heaven than the loft.
Grandfather himself now lay in a box. The bristles had disappeared from his face, and his eyelids were uncovered from beneath the sunglasses. The body seemed sleeker within its shroud but offered no real secrets. His cheeks rouged a blatant pink, his hair bore a darker tint, the smile had been wiped down into a serene blank, whilst his eyebrows had been pencilled to arch black amazement at the whole process. I wondered where he had gone this time.
I heard the lid forced down on the coffin, watched from the window as the body was carried through the front door, and stood by the open grave as the vicar preached about the man he had never met. My father looked sad, but there were no tears. An arm stretched out to hug my mother closer to himself, maybe even bind in that embarrassed relief I had sensed in the house, a relief only suppressed by decency. Just the day before father had reverted to his jokes, feeling his way back into the living room. As the coffin was lowered, father looked away, out of the churchyard and beyond the fields. I felt grandfather sinking from sight, father fleeing the scene, and stood hopelessly small between them. Two directions showed themselves. There was no way grandfather was living all three of our lives. The first spadeful of mud dropped down to splat against the wood. ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ came the chant. Grandfather was being left to crumble. He could never escape the box to feel the same wind as I did.
My father picked me up as I wept, carried me from the churchyard and into the fields as I sobbed out all control over my body. It had surprised them both, I later heard my parents say, but then you never could tell how these things would affect the children.