Contrary to my sister’s belief my grandfather did not deliberately die on her birthday. I guess, if he’d have had a choice, he would’t have died at all – although, who would want to live forever? Well, perhaps we all would if we could sustain a semblance of youth, but then, by the time my grandpa died he was, largely speaking, past his best.
I have a number of memories of him – probably the earliest memory was him arriving to babysit the 3 of us (before my younger brother was born) because my mother had a shift at Smith and Nephews, working on the Nivea line. He arrived in his trilby hat (which I was given at his death and which lasted years, eventually found rotting in my cellar and thrown away in the great clear out of 2014 before moving lock, stock and barrel to the south west.) He was also wearing his overcoat (in my memory it was summer) and although not the tallest bloke he was nonetheless austere – it was hard to square this man with the coal man that my mother talked about or the boy soldier, who rose to non-commissioned officer rank captain. When you’re a child, it is hard to reconcile that adults have any previous life at all. And yet, his by all accounts had been eventful.
From his undistinguished birth: the bastard child of a scullery maid and a math’s professor though no on has ever found the proof of this through to his days as a lollipop man. He was called Andy by the world at large (although his name was Arthur) because he was handy with the ladies. He met my gran at 28 and she was was 18. He was born within the sound of the Bow bells – so I’ve got some of that South East blood, that London stuff running through my veins two generations removed though I’m not convinced many of his genes made their way to me. I’m of the other side I think, all angled cheekbones and word obsessed.
On the baby sitting night, we ran the poor bugger ragged. My sister and I had a wind-up record player and we played “Shoo fly don’t bother me” and “Skip to my lou my darling” on it, so often, that he was probably close to throttling us. Every time the refrain, Skip to my lou came on, that’s exactly what we did… skipped enthusiastically and with a degree of gusto belying the fact that we were way past our bedtime, crashing into each other in our eagerness to get to the toilet first. He tried telling us it wasn’t that kind of loo but we ignored him getting giddier with each turn.
He never looked after us again.
We must have seen him a lot, because we went up to North Hull Estate where he lived behind the library every few weeks but I can’t really remember him playing much of a starring role: he’d be sitting watching TV or having a smoke or making tea.
He did feature occasionally. When I was about 7, my sister, my cousin Michelle and me went with him to Blackpool. This was no small undertaking and I know that it involved staying over at my grandparents’ house (the only time we strayed upstairs in my memory) and getting up in the small hours to catch the train to travel the breadth of the country. And the purpose of this trip? To experience the tram and the light’s switch on.
I remember nothing about the tram. I do remember the illuminations and I remember it was cold. (I also recall going back to Blackpool twenty-five years later and wondering what he would have made of the roller-skating transvestite in a bikini handing out leaflets for a nightclub and the free range, marauding hen parties full of women with learner signs and pink feather boas, but he was long dead by then.)
Other abiding memories of him were his cockney accent, his rough hewn tattoos, his overloud telly and the sweet, sweet tea that seemed to be on tap, brought across the room by his shaking hand… There was something tense and mesmerising about that shaking hand and something reassuring about his smile as the cup sploshed to a standstill in front of you. He was often smoking simultaneously – a dangerous combination and you watched the ash carefully as it dangled from the tab end. Sometimes, he hooked the fag into his mouth. Other times, fag in hand, he began to cough and as his breath rattled round his riven lungs, you held your own, certain that like a pin ball it would somehow work its way lose again and the coughing would stop.
I remember lots of other things about his front room: the never ending mirrors that returned your reflection from one to the other ad infinitum. His large brown chair. His ash tray full to the top with Park Drive tabs, his collection of Guiness Books of Records and Benny Hill running around like a maniac on the telly and all conversations conducted over the melee. “How’s school?” he’d asked “It’s alright,” you’d answer even if it was the shittest place on earth. He wanted all his grandkids to do well…though he did not live to see me awarded my first degree (the first ever in the family) and he was a long time dead by the time I’d received numbers two and three.
Nothing much else was said until the women folk had left (dad stayed behind for in-depth conversations) for Aunty Joan’s which also involved the carrying of a giant box of cakes and buns around by Grandma, who was paid to bake them and I spent all the time thinking which I’d choose when we’d arrived and its delights were opened up. Maid of honour was my favourite. The exquisite nature of the almond paste, jam and almonds – Grandpa was a lucky man if he got to choose a different cake each day. I’ll never taste its like again.
Granddad’s final days were discussed openly. His wish, for instance, to die at home was well known and yet somehow, the ambulance was called…
“All his organs were failing him,” my mother said, and so he didn’t get his final wish.
When the end was near, my mother repeated a homily of his. “Life,” he’d said, “was like a bucket of water. Remove a cup, and that’s the difference you’ve made. The water looks the same.” I always found this sad because although he didn’t hang around for long in my life (I was 12), there’s a vividness to the memories: the Izal medicated, the carbolic soap in jars to be re-pressed, the lollipop stick in the coal house, the smile. The hopes that somehow failed: his made-up double-barrel name.
My grandfather died – in hospital – on the 18th April 1978 of multiple organ failure, and my sister had a dismal day on her 14th birthday.