Grandad's Party - Chapter 3 of 3
The playground has changed. The flaked and peeling slide and swings have been replaced by a wooden fort with turrets and rope bridges. The small rickety hut, where I spent hours reading books and avoiding going back to the house, has gone.
There’s a wooden bench facing the playground. I read the inscription, ‘James Coates 1992-1999 He loved the park’. I snatch back tears, telling myself not to be so stupid; crying over a boy I never knew. I sit down and roll a cigarette, my fingers shaking.
It’s grey and rain is in the air. The playground is almost deserted. A little girl by the climbing frame, maybe four or five. She’s marching in circles through the wood chips with high looping steps, eyes wide and staring, arms lifting above her head in time with her legs.
“Evie, walk properly please. Stop being silly.”
“But, Mummy, I’m being a alien.”
“You’re not an alien, you’re a girl, now walk properly please or we’re going home.”
She pouts, arms now limp by her side. Her mother gives her a long look and then rolls her eyes at me, dramatically as if to say, ‘What can you do?’ I stare back at her and she frowns then returns to fiddling with her phone.
I want to shake her and shout. “Let her be a child, let her play, let her be a alien if she wants, what the hell does it matter? Don’t squash her.”
And now the tears do come, nothing will stop them. I put my head in my hands, my vision blurring. There are no words, just the overwhelming feelings of injustice, guilt, despair. My shoulders shake. I wrap my arms around myself. It feels like it will never stop, like I will be sat here crying forever.
I look up. The little girl stands in front of me, wearing a blue duffel coat. She looks into my eyes, curiosity and concern on her face. She reaches out a small hand towards me. She leaves it hanging in the air and I stare stupidly at it for a moment then reach my own hand out.
“Evie, what are you doing? Leave that man alone.” The mother picks the girl up and holds her away from me. “I’m sorry,” she says to me, but the horrified look on her face says I’m a threat, a monster.
She hurries away scolding the girl, who watches me solemnly over her mother’s shoulder. I watch till they turn a corner and disappear. I feel like something vital has been taken from me.
I rub my hands over my face, wiping away tears and snot, trying to decide what to do. I’m at a crossroads, I need to make choices but I don’t know what they are. The first drops of rain begin to fall and the playground is now empty.
Questions fill my head. For him: did you ever think about what you were doing to me? The effect it would have? Did you think I’d just grow up and forget it all, live a normal life? Do you ever feel bad? Feel sorry? And why? Just why did you do it?
Dad’s face floats into my mind, haunted, miserable. Did you do the same to Dad too? Is that why he was like he was? Why he gave up?
I stare at the sky but there are no answers there. With an effort, I drag myself to my feet and begin to walk.
“Where have you been? We’re about to do the cake.” Jason greets me at the door. “Get in there. Don’t ruin this day for them.”
I join the others in the living room, standing to one side. I watch as Nan marches in with the cake, she doesn’t meet my eye. The cake is big; two layers of chocolate sponge and thick chocolate cream in the middle, a single candle flickering on top. Jason makes a joke about eighty candles being a health and safety nightmare. Everyone laughs and then they sing ‘Happy birthday.’ Jason glares at me as I stand silent.
Grandad leans forward with an effort and blows out the candle, then sinks back into his seat, breathing heavily. Nan says something about a special ingredient and whips the cake back into the kitchen.
“Happy birthday, Grandad,” Jason announces, raising his beer can. “You’re one in a million. A real top bloke. Isn’t he, Robbie. Come here and say happy birthday to your Grandad.”
I stare at him blankly.
“Leave it be, Jason,” Grandad grunts.
“But he’s such an ungrateful little-“
“Jason,” Grandad snaps and Jason’s mouth shuts sharply as Nan returns chirping from the kitchen.
“Here we are then, a nice big piece for the birthday boy. And a good helping of brandy cream, your favourite. We won’t tell Dr Summer, eh? A special treat on your special day.” She hands him a large slice on a plate.
He smiles at her. “You’re too good to me, love.” She leans in and kisses him on the cheek, her eyes wet. Jason says what a beautiful moment it is. Grandad picks up the fork and starts eating. Nan scuttles back to the kitchen for cake for everyone.
I stand holding my plate, watching the others eat and nod appreciatively, tell Nan how delicious it is. Grandad drifts off to sleep, a chunk of the cake still on his plate, sitting in a pool of cream. Jason’s little boy reaches out to take it and Nan gives him a light tap on the wrist, “No more for you, young man; you’ve had your piece.” She takes the cake and puts it up on the mantelpiece then turns and tells everyone it’s been a tiring day. Thank you for coming, you’ve all been so kind, so very kind.
They hurry to pick up their things and shuffle to the door, thanking Nan for a wonderful party, hope to see you soon, take care now, take care. Nan waves away their thanks and shoos them firmly through the door.
She comes back into the room. I stand over him. Silently I ask my questions, in my head, then let them drift away. They don’t matter now.
Nan comes over and strokes his cold cheek. Then she sinks back into her chair opposite his, staring at him. “Robert, love, I’m knackered, it really has been a tiring day. Make us a cup of tea, would you?”
I stare at Grandad, at his closed eyes, his sunken, still chest. “Sure, Nan. No problem.”
In the kitchen, I move mechanically, boiling the water, putting the teabag in the cup, adding the milk. I scoop the teabag out, throw it into the bin. I stop, reach in and push the empty pill bottle aside, look at the blue and red pill cases, flecks of white powder on their crumpled insides.
I scoop it all out of the bin and pile it into a plastic bag. Later I will add the remains of the cake and take it all down to the park and stuff it deep into a bin, far away from the house.
Nan stands in the doorway, her hand on the doorframe. “I just didn’t want to believe it, Robert, you know? I loved him and I couldn’t believe it. I’m sorry. I am so sorry.” There are no tears. Not yet. I move towards her, reach down and wrap my arms round her and we hold each other for a long time.