Way Out West was on the television when the phone rang. It had just got to one of my favourite bits. Sighing heavily, I left Stan Laurel flashing his leg at the Brushwood Gulch stagecoach and grumbled my way into the hall.
‘Could I speak to Mrs. Bolton?’
‘I’m sorry, she’s out at the moment.’
‘Is Mr. Bolton there?’
‘He’s out as well. They’ve both gone shopping. They’ll be back about twelve.’
‘Oh, I see.’
‘I can take a message if you like.’
‘No, I really need to...um...actually...is that the son of the house?’
‘Ah, well, this is Mrs. Simmonds, the Matron from The Meadows in Sleaford. We have your grandparents with us.’
‘You’ll have to forgive me, young man...your name is?’
‘Yes, Keith. And how old are you, Keith?’
‘Sixteen, nearly seventeen.’
‘Yes, I think you’re old enough. Well, Keith, I have some very sad news I want you to pass on to your mother. I’m afraid your grandfather passed away this morning. I’m very sorry. Do you think you might do that for me?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘And if you’d be kind enough to tell her to give me a ring when she feels up to it, I’d appreciate it. Today, if possible.’
‘Yes, I will.’
‘Thank you, dear. Goodbye.’
Anyone listening to my part in this exchange could have been forgiven for thinking that I was merely confirming an order from the local butcher’s. Telephone manners had reduced my grandad’s death to the passing on of a message.
‘Any phone calls while I was out?’
‘Yeah, two. One from Bycroft’s. They want to know whether it’s stewing steak yer on about.’
‘And the second?’
‘Now what was it. Hang about, it’ll come to me. Oh, yeh, yer dad’s dead.’
Having replaced the receiver, I looked out of the hall window at a robin pecking at the top baton of the middle trellis fence. Hard to imagine that such thin, twiggish legs could support the weight of that red-breasted fluffball body on top. He suddenly stopped pecking, cocked his head to one side and flew off in the direction of the skeletal cherry tree. The sharp tang of pine needles was in the air, floating across from the Christmas tree which as always was stationed in front of the cupboard under the stairs. Every bauble on its delicately bowed branches had a history. Some even dated as far back as South Kyme from my mum’s own childhood: thin, tin boxes, flaking silver and gold, pressed with images of the Bethlehem inn or stable. My grandad must have held them once when they were shiny and new, no doubt awaiting instructions from my nan as to which branch he could or couldn’t attach them.
‘Oh, Ted, dowunt be soa soft. I said that one owerver theeur.’
The last time I had seen him was only a week ago. He had been shuffling down the corridor back to his bedroom, hunched over his zimmer frame. Leaving my nan in the equatorial heat of the television lounge in her high-backed, plastic-upholstered armchair, watching Nicholas Parsons on The Sale of the Century.
His death wasn’t a surprise. We all knew that it was only a matter of time before he shuffled over to the other side. His false teeth spent most of their time in the glass on his bedside cabinet and his hearing-aid was almost always turned off. Whenever we turned up, he smiled, groaned when my mum fussed over his shirt and cardigan, and then promptly fell asleep again.
It was certainly a far cry from the retired farmhand who proudly nurtured his vegetable garden in South Kyme when I was a boy. Their house was in the corner of a cul-de-sac, built for farm workers, just off the main village road. After the bus had rolled to a halt, I would make a dash for the front door where my nan was waiting for us, wiping her hands on her apron. She always knew when we’d arrive. Her kitchen window overlooked a vast expanse of ploughed fields, punctuated by the odd tree, through which the main road passed, straight as an arrow. A single decker was hard to miss in such a flat and desolate landscape.
After obliging my nan with a kiss, I waited for her permission to proceed through the house.
‘He’s owert yonder, in the back.’
Dodging the sideboard in the hall and the kitchen chairs, I flew out of the back door. Yes, there he was, in his brown corduroys and flat cap, stamping down on his garden fork before shaking the earth to reveal another nest of potatoes.
‘Now that’s what I call good tiyumin. Yer can help me git these ter yer nan. Colander’s owerver theeur.’
After South Kyme came Heckington, where they lived in a pre-fabricated bungalow before moving to a brick built one on an estate of sheltered accommodation. It was just round the corner from the crazy man’s bungalow with its concrete staircase climbing through the roof. It was here that my grandad entertained me with his tall tales and engaged in zimmer frame fights with other feisty old men intent on hogging the pavement. But that seemed such a long time ago.
I could still hear the film in the background. Stan and Ollie were singing On the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I’d better get ready for my mum’s return. How long now? I ran through the back room to check the time in the kitchen. A quarter past eleven. She still had forty-five minutes of not knowing.
They were doing the Christmas food shopping, trailing the shops and market stalls, as happy in each other’s company as they had always been. My mum would be sharing her amazement with everyone at how Christmas had crept up on them again and my dad, the dutiful packhorse, would be standing by and smiling, looking forward to his cup of tea and an afternoon in front of the television with Eddie Waring. Well, he wouldn’t get it today.
Given the present situation, the actual loss of my grandad had taken a back seat. Uppermost in my mind was the effect his death would have on my mum and my own role as messenger. I felt nervous, frightened even, but also strangely excited that I had been entrusted with such a monumental responsibility.
I took to tidying the house. After switching off the television in the front room, I plumped up the cushions on the settee and folded the newspaper before returning to the kitchen to wash and dry the breakfast pots. Always with an eye on the clock and an ear cocked for the sound of the car on the drive. I couldn’t keep still. I began by reading the Christmas cards on the mantelpiece, window sill and piano, then progressed to rearranging them thematically: robins, snowmen, winter wonderland, angels, the nativity.
Outside a brass band had started up. It was more than likely the Salvation Army, taking up their customary position next to the red letter-box on Liz’s corner. I hurried into the front room. Framed by a halo of frosted breath, they had just started on Once in Royal David’s City. Against a background of dark blue uniforms, the instruments gleamed golden in the winter sun. The flashes of red on the men’s caps, collars and trousers were like reflections of the letter-box. Directly in front of them, the women, young and old, sang from carol sheets, their Victorian bonnets fixed securely at the chin with a big black confectioner’s bow.
The whole spectacle was incongruous for the early 1970s, yet, at the same time, oddly beautiful. Hard to believe that they still attracted teenagers the same age as me. It was probably a family tradition, a bit like the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade. Mind you, the Salvation Army ran in my dad’s family and as far back as I could remember my sister and I had been encouraged to regard its members with respect rather than scorn. His auntie and uncle had been lifelong members. Even in their sixties, they were still selling The War Cry in the market place pubs on a Saturday night. Which, given Boston’s reputation for weekend violence, must have taken some doing.
A Jack Russell terrier suddenly appeared round the corner dragging a squat, middle-aged woman whose mid-winter, gooseberry-green overcoat was topped by a Cossack fur hat and tailed with a pair of black rubber ankle boots. The dog sniffed at Liz’s hedge and cocked his leg in a series of hops before straining at a scent which pulled the poor woman down the Avenue.
The band and choir were into the second verse of O Come All Ye Faithful when I heard the squeal of brakes and the sound of a dying engine on the drive. Hiding behind the Christmas tree, I waited for the two figures to pass in front of the hall window. The gate closed behind them with a click.
Assuming an expression of tight-lipped, doe-eyed sadness, I walked slowly towards the giggles which I could hear echoing in the passage. By the time the kitchen door handle was turning, I had positioned myself next to the sink.
‘We’re home, ducky. I think we might need a hand with these bags.’
As the door swung open, I could see the top of her head as she stooped to lift the jumble of carrier bags she had placed in front of her.
‘Oh, yer there, ducky. Wally, he’s up. Have you been listening to the Salvation Army band? They’re out at the front.’
I could feel my mouth twitch then freeze into what I imagined was a compassionate smile.
‘What is it, Keith? What’s happened?’
I breathed in deeply, my hand gripping the stainless-steel lip of the sink.
‘I think you need to put your bags down. It’s grandad. He died this morning.’
I stood there as she crumpled, her hands letting go of the bags as she wheeled round to collapse into my dad’s arms. A tin of garden peas rolled across the floor and stopped with a clunk against the dog’s food bowl.
‘Oh, not my daddy. No, not my daddy.’
Her cries were the muffled and desperate cries of an injured and lost little girl. I wanted to reach out to her, but in those few seconds an impenetrable barrier had shut me off from her. She had disappeared into her childhood and I was left, a helpless observer, staring at the two of them as my chest began to shudder and my tears quickly blurred them into an indistinct huddle at the side of the cooker.
We arrived at The Meadows at tea time. My nan was in her room, sat in the corner, her lowered head propped up by a hand of bent, arthritic fingers which worried away at her forehead. We had all been given a milky white cup of tea by the matron.
‘We’re just going to spend some minutes with yer grandad. Do yer want to come and say goodbye?’
My mum and dad were at the door. I shook my head and took a step backwards towards the dressing table. I didn’t want to see him. Not a waxen effigy with neatly combed silver hair. He had been laid out on his bed, awaiting the arrival of the undertakers.
‘We won’t be long.’
My mum was talking in whispers.
‘You keep your nan company then.’
They closed the door quietly behind them. Careful not to disturb the silence, I slowly placed my cup and saucer on the lace mat on the dressing table, next to the silver-backed hair brush and packet of soft mints.
Two days later, Christmas morning was a muted affair. I didn’t race my sister down the stairs and, when I had finally unwrapped my main present, I failed miserably in pretending enthusiasm at the discovery of an electric shaver. Christmas dinner wasn’t any better. It was hard to enjoy a festive meal with the knowledge that the sprouts had been salted by my mum’s tears.