Grandad's Party - Chapter 1 of 3
Nan ushers me in and closes the door behind me, but not before giving a curious glance outside. She stands back, looks me up and down, gives a little shake of her head. “Robert,” she says simply. Disappointment? Pride? I can’t tell.
I stand, tall and awkward under her gaze, hands hanging by my side. She dabs at her eyes then holds her arms out. Obediently I lean down and her arms wrap round me, holding tight, her hands flickering like sparrows against my jacket. I rest my arms gingerly on the fabric of her cardigan, afraid of breaking her. I imagine I could pick her up like a child.
“Come in, come in,” she pulls away abruptly, taking me by the hand and pulling me into the house. It’s like stepping back in time; the red rotary telephone on the hall table, the sunburst clock delivering its monotonous tick, the carpet under my feet the same sickly green.
Nan stops and looks at me “So. No Angie then?”
“She couldn’t make it. Something came up.”
Nan narrows her eyes. “Something?”
“Yeah,” I start weakly then give in. “We split up.”
“Oh no, such a lovely lass,” she cries. “What happened?”
I shrug. “You know, it just wasn’t working.”
“I can’t do this anymore, Rob, I just can’t. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, don’t worry about it. I understand.”
“Do you? Well, that’s good, because I don’t. Do you have any idea how much I wanted this to work? I love you, you stupid bastard.” She points accusingly.
I say nothing and she carries on pacing.
“But I can’t cope with this anymore. I know it’s shit timing, I know I said I’d come with you tomorrow, but I just don’t have it in me, I thought I did, but I just don’t.”
“I so want to be with you and I want us to be happy, I’ve tried so hard to make us happy, but I don’t know if it’s ever going to happen. I always thought it would but now… now I just don’t know what can make you happy.”
“You’re right, I understand. It’s okay.”
“Stop saying that. It’s not okay, it’s a million miles from okay. I feel like shit. I thought I was strong enough to get us both through but I’m not. I’ve got nothing left.”
“It’s okay,” she glares at me. “Sorry. But it’s not fair on you having to deal with my shit all the time. It’s my problem, my... fucked-upness. You deserve better than that.”
“Oh, don’t start on that self-pity crap. ‘Everyone always leaves me, it’s all I expect’. “
“It’s not self-pity,” I say simply. And I don’t think it is. I don’t expect anyone to stay around for me. I’m pathetically grateful and bemused when anyone does and when they eventually do leave, normality is resumed and I’m alone, which is how I’m meant to be. I’m more comfortable on my own. I almost feel relieved it’s over, although I know I’m going to miss her. Actually, I know it’s going to hurt like hell.
Angie stands with her face in her hands. “Look, this was always going to happen,” I tell her. I’m aware my matter-of-fact reasonableness is pissing her off but I can’t help it. “I told you at the start, I’ve said all along, I think I’m beyond help. I appreciate that you tried, that you took a chance on me, I really am.”
“Oh Jesus,” she snaps, “you’re not a bloody charity case.”
I say nothing. We both know that’s pretty much exactly what I am. She shakes her head and picks her bag up, hoists it onto her shoulder.
“Can I help you with your stuff?”
“Will you stop being so bloody calm, for god’s sake. It’s like you’re dead inside or something.”
I wince. She screws her eyes shut and holds her arms out in helpless apology.
“Where are you going?” I ask to stop her feeling bad.
She sighs. “Staying with Cassie for a few days. I need some head-space.”
She turns at the door. “I hope the party goes... okay.”
“Say hi to your Nan.”
“And… you know. Good luck with your Grandad. I hope it’s… it’s not… I hope you can deal with it.”
“Oh love, I’m sorry, she’s a lovely girl. Let me make you some tea. Go say hi to your Grandad. He’s just watching the football,” Nan points me to the living room, calling out, “William, look who’s here,” then bustles into the kitchen.
He’s sunk deep in the same chair, like he hasn’t moved in the fifteen years since I last saw him. He gestures at the TV, a large, incongruous flatscreen on the ancient mahogany table. “Jesus, what is he doing there? Just bloody pass the ball, you’re not bleedin’ Pele, you know.” He frowns and looks up at me. “Alright Bobby? Long time, no see.”
I nod. Our eyes meet for a moment then he turns back to the TV.
“I hope that’s finished when everyone arrives,” Nan calls from the kitchen. “It’s going off regardless.”
No response from the chair. He knows I’m still here but he won’t look up, staring impassively at the screen. Nan’s letters talk about problems with his health, but he looks strong, self-contained, untouchable.
I feel like I want to say something, should say something, but I don’t know what it is. I stand uselessly for a moment then walk out.
Plates cover every available surface in the kitchen: quiches, pies, crisps, salad, fruit. Despite the obvious effort that’s gone into it all, it’s still as miraculously clean as ever. I think of my kitchen; the dirty dishes, coffee stains, nicotine-yellow walls.
Nan gestures me to sit and bustles about, putting the kettle on the stove, teabags into the pot, filling the milk jug. Then she pauses, turns and looks at me.
“So, how are you, Robert?”
“I’m okay, Nan.”
“I mean about Angie.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m fine, honestly. She says hi, by the way.”
“Well, that’s nice, I always liked her, so sweet and kind. No chance of a reconciliation, I suppose? Maybe just a lovers’ tiff, eh?”
I shake my head. Nan looks crestfallen, almost crushed by the news. She slumps into a chair.
“It’ll be okay, Nan. Don’t worry.”
“’Don’t worry’, he tells me.” She gives a bitter laugh. “How can I not worry, dear? After all you’ve been through; your poor mum gone so young, and then your daddy. He was just so lost without her. I wish I could have done more for him.”
“There was nothing you could have done, Nan.” I should put my hand on hers, comfort her, but I don’t. “Dad was responsible for his own decisions, and he decided to opt out.”
“’Opt out.’ You make it sound so… Oh, I don’t know. I just thought you had something with Angie like your daddy had with your poor mum. I thought you could be happy.”
I shrug. “I’m not too good at being happy.” The kettle starts whistling on the stove. “I’ll get it.” I pour the water into the teapot, then notice the pill bottle. I pick it up and shake it. ‘Lisinopril’ the label says; prescribed to Grandad. “What are these?”
“Oh, Dr Summer prescribed those, says he needs to be careful of his heart. Cut down on the beer, watch what he eats, you know. He’s eighty now, you know. Bring the tea over, would you. I need to get on with the cake. They call it ‘Death by Chocolate’; such a silly name, but I hope people will like it.”
Watching Nan fussing with the mixing bowl reminds me of the steady stream of cakes and puddings since I came here as a kid, a kid whose five-year-old world had just been ripped out from under him. I think back to sitting at the table, Grandad not speaking, throwing scraps to Rocky to catch and swallow in one motion. Nan chattering away, asking me about school. Me inventing unconvincing tales of adventures with fictitious friends to reassure her.
Healthy, stolid veg at every meal then on Sundays the amazing cakes would be produced with a proud flourish. Slices appeared in my lunchbox to take to school for the first couple of days of the week. She was always trying to cheer me up, making it her constant mission to make me smile.