Grandad's Party - Chapter 2 of 3
Everyone is older but the same. Friends of Nan and Grandad’s I remember visiting them here from years ago. I was the weird silent kid then, and they all look at me with the same wary look now. The familiar, semi-comforting feeling of exclusion surrounds me.
I stand in the corner, holding a plate of food for appearances’ sake, looking round the chattering room, wishing I was somewhere else. Where I don’t know. A sick dizziness floats in my stomach.
Dad’s brother Craig stands by Grandad, one hand resting on the back of his chair. A sneering glance when they arrived aside, he hasn’t looked at me once. His wife stuffs food in her mouth, squealing in exaggerated delight, gushing between mouthfuls about what a fantastic spread Nan’s put on.
Beside her is my cousin Jason, with his meek wife, and young son. “Do good eating, Oscar, good eating, please,” she urges the little boy. I catch Jason’s eye. He’s glaring at me, a can of lager held up like a challenge. I look away quickly but he’s coming over anyway,
He’s put on weight, his face grown jowly, making him seem several years older than me, rather than just the one he would always remind me of when we were kids. Belligerent, boasting about goals he scored, girls who fancied him and what he’d done with them. Forcing me to play football; me making unenthusiastic efforts to tackle while he dribbled the ball round me again and again, a running commentary of his skills spilling from his gum-chewing mouth. Putting me in goal to pepper me with shots; both goals and direct, painful hits on me causing wild celebrations and testimonials of his own prowess.
“Hey Jason.” I say. “How are you?” I make the effort at politeness.
“I’m good, doing well, doing really well. Working in the City.”
He’s waiting for me to say something else, something more impressed, but I can’t think of anything, so he goes on.
“What are you doing then?” He smirks. I wonder how much he knows.
I consider telling him about the mental health team, being signed off work, the depression, but what would be the point?
“Just looking for work.”
“On benefits?” He says this like he’s caught me stealing from him. “You know, that’s what’s wrong with this country. Too many people needing to get their arses in gear and start paying their own way. Look at Grandad. Worked his whole life, paid his taxes, never claimed anything. Fed you and clothed you, put a roof over your head. You should be grateful for what he did for you, taking you in after your dad...” He trails off, drawing back a fraction before he crosses the invisible line. He stares down at the faded scars on my arms and snorts. “Like father, like son.”
I place the plate carefully on the sideboard. “Excuse me. I’m just going to the toilet.” He stands in my way so I push past him. I hear him mutter something about “drugs” and “waste of space” before I reach the door and start climbing the stairs.
Staring into the bathroom mirror I decide that I should just go. I don’t trust myself to stay, just don’t know what I’m going to do if I have to stay in this house. I put in an appearance; ‘showed my face’ as Nan would say. That will have to do. Just make my excuses and then a quiet exit.
I close the bathroom door behind me and am about to walk down the stairs when I stop and look round. The landing is dim but I can still see the scratches on the bottom of their bedroom door.
I can hear Nan twittering around downstairs, offering drinks and food. I step over to the door and try the handle, half hoping it will be locked, but it opens easily.
The familiarity of the room washes over me. The dark green curtains held back over the window, the bedspread covered in pink roses, the dressing table neatly laid out with hairbrushes, combs, Nan’s make-up, and a photo of the dog.
Grandad always said the dog was smiling in that picture but it never looked like a smile to me; it looked like a snarl. I stare at the picture, remembering the sound of the dog panting, his wet tongue hanging out, then exploding into a volley of barks that grow, filling my head, blotting out all thoughts.
I fall to the ground, holding my head ... then I’m running across the park, blood pouring from my nose over my lips, into my mouth, the taunts of children ringing in my ears, dimly aware of my school blazer has torn, ripping badly as I struggled free. Panicked, I fumble the key into the lock and shove the door open, falling through and slamming it shut behind me.
The dog leaps at me, up on his hind legs, heavy paws on my shoulders, breath in my face, pushing me back against the door, the barking like gunfire. I feel a warm wetness spread in my trousers and I’m sobbing and pushing him away. I sink to the floor and the dog retreats a couple of feet and bares his teeth at me, the growl deep in his throat. I feel the wetness on my legs cool against my skin.
Grandad appears, lays his hand on the dog’s neck, pats him. “Alright, Rocky, settle down.” He looks at me lying on the floor. “What happened to you?”
I stammer it out. The kids from school, following me, the things they said about my dad, calling him a nutter. How they grabbed hold of my blazer, one hit me in the face.
“Need to learn to stick up for yourself, lad.”
I did, I say, I tried, there were too many of them.
“Come on, stand up. Let’s clean you up.”
I stand, my legs shaking.
“What’s that?” He points at my legs. “Have you pissed yourself, lad? Over a bunch of kids?”
It wasn’t the kids, I say. I glance at the dog, sitting, panting with his tongue out, looking from Grandad to me.
“Rocky? You pissed yourself over Rocky?” he shakes his head in disgust. “He wouldn’t hurt a fly.” The dog licks his hand. “Come on, let’s sort you out before your Nan gets home and sees you like this.”
He pulls me to my feet and I follow him up the stairs. On the landing, he pushes me towards their bedroom. “Get in there. I’ll get a bowl of water.” Rocky follows me in, starts sniffing at my trousers, nosing against me. I stand with my arms by my side, willing him to go away.
“Get away, you daft bastard.” Grandad pushes the dog out and shuts the door. The dog whines and scratches at the door.
“Come on then, lad.” Grandad gets down on one knee and scrubs hard at my face with the flannel, then at my neck. I taste my own blood, metallic, on my teeth.
Grandad leans back and looks me up and down. “Now let’s sort those clothes out. Get them off.”
I don’t move.
“What are you waiting for lad, get them clothes off.”
It’s okay, I tell him, I can do it. I’ll wash them, it’s okay.
“Don’t be silly, lad, I’ll take care of it.” He pulls me closer and yanks my blazer off my arms, then undoes my shirt, throws them both in a pile, then undoes the button on my trousers, pulls the zip down and pulls my trousers down to my ankles.
I put my hand out to stop his hand as he reaches for my pants, but he brushes it away. I can do it, Grandad, I can do it, it’s okay, but he pulls them down. He grabs the flannel and rubs it over my penis and balls, dipping the flannel in the bowl and rubbing again. He pushes me round and runs the flannel over my bottom. I see my face in the mirror, pale and scared.
He drops the flannel in the bowl, picks up a towel, starts drying me. I grab at the towel. Grandad, I can do it, please, let me do it. He slaps my hand away. “Don’t be stupid, lad. Let’s just check you’re dry and then we can get you some clean clothes on.”
His hands are gentle now, I can feel the hardened calluses of his fingers against my skin, sliding slowly over me. I try to speak, to tell him to stop, but I look at his face and I can’t. I close my eyes and wait and wait and at last he stands up, rubs his hands together. “Right.”
He stands over me, his hands on his hips. I tell him I’m cold, I want to put some clothes on.
“In a minute, lad. Let’s just get a few things straight first.” He bends down and puts his hand on the side of my head, his thumb resting on my cheek. “We don’t tell your Nan what happened today, do we? You know how she worries and we don’t want her to worry, do we now? Do we?” He pushes my head and I nod. “Just a secret between us men, yes?” I nod again. “Good lad.”
He stands and leaves the room. I hear him call the dog, his feet on the stairs, then the front door shuts and I’m alone.
I wake curled up, my face against the rough carpet, the sounds of the party below drifting up through the floorboards. I’m crying hard, silent tears, a dense ball of pain in my stomach. The after-image of the flashback is slow to fade. They always feel real but this one even more so. A sudden thought hits me and I check my trousers, thankfully dry.
I don’t know how long I lie there. I keep my arms wrapped round myself, my eyes shut tight. Going through that first time again, something has shifted in me. The small doubt I’ve always felt, the possibility that everything I remembered could just be my fucked-up mind playing tricks on me, is gone. I know it happened; it all happened. Remembering this, the first time, of all of them the most-innocent-seeming, the most open to doubt, makes it clear to me.
Anger hits me and I’m halfway down the stairs before I realise what I’m doing. I stop at the bottom and look into the living room.
Grandad is in his chair still, everyone surrounds him, Jason says something and Grandad laughs, his arms wrapped round Jason’s little boy. I see his hand, big and ugly, rubbing one of the boy’s skinny bare legs. The boy leans back against him and smiles.
There’s nothing I can do to him. They won’t believe me, I’m the odd one out, the weirdo; he’s good old Bill, untouchable, I can’t hurt him now, all I would do is hurt Nan. I can’t make anything better.
I retreat to the kitchen and look around, my eye lighting on the pill bottle. I pick it up. It’s almost full: ’28 tablets’ the label says. I twist the lid, it clicks round and round. I try again, pushing and turning. I hear Grandad’s scornful voice in my head, telling me to put my back into it, not to be a sissy all my life. I push hard and twist and the lid spins off and onto the worktop.
“Robert.” I jump and drop the bottle. Blue and red tablets scatter across the floor. Nan looks at me, her hand over her mouth, her eyes wide. “What are you doing, love? What are you doing?”
“Did you know?” I ask her. My voice is quiet. “Did you know...?”
She slumps, grabs at the worktop. He eyes dart helplessly over the plates on the worktop, to the floor, to the window. Finally she manages to look at me. She shakes her head, her mouth opens and closes but no words come out until, just audible, I hear her whispered “Sorry”.
We stare at each other. She takes a step forward and reaches out to me. I pull away then push past her. I struggle with the bolts on the front door, open it then I’m outside and running.