14 June 2007

Birth Certificate

As my short stories are going down so well with you, I thought you might care to read another. Seriously. Please. Read/comment on another.

She used to bring us treats each Sunday. Sometimes it was a year old Jackie magazine. Sometimes a single rusty earring. Sometimes milkshakes past their sell-by date. Chocolate was my favourite. I never drunk the banana flavoured ones – I used to give them to my dolls. God knows where she got them. Probably borrowed off a neighbour’s doorstep, Mum used to say. Clara and me were poorly every Sunday night that she’d bought the shakes over, but it took us years to work out the connection and stop drinking them. We’d pour them down the drain outside, but smile and nod and say “Thank You” anyway.

We used to tease her. It was cruel really, looking back. She was such a heavy sleeper, mouth open, false teeth rattling like wind chimes in a storm. And almost deaf – the perfect prey for two mischievous granddaughters. Once we waited for her to fall asleep in her rocking-chair and then moved everything out of the room except her and the chair. And I mean everything. The threadbare rug, once pale pink, that her calloused grey feet almost touched. The stewed, cold cup of tea that seemed to live permanently on the nest of tables beside her. The framed school photos of Clara and me aged 5, 6, 7, 9 and 11. I wonder what happened to 8 and 10? Did she lose them or throw them away? We moved the teak-effect labrenza unit into the hallway, and rifled through the cupboards and drawers. We laughed at the plastic cracker trinkets stowed away in the Rover biscuit tin. We flicked through the saved postcards and birthday cards addressed to people we didn’t know, from friends we’d never met or heard of. We marvelled over the neatly folded brown paper bags hidden in all four of the drawers. We took every piece of Granny-craft. The tea stained doilies embroidered by nuns and bought from bazaars at the church, the striped knitted tea-cosy that hid the tarnished silver coffee pot; the LT initialled once-white hankies stuffed down the side of the bright orange foam sofa that sagged in the middle, and at the ends. We took the two-bar heater that was never turned on, and the old gramophone that didn’t work. The headless china dog doorstop, and all 12 of the chipped enamel flower-patterned trays. I mean everything. Then we sat on the back door step playing cats’ cradle with a piece of cotton wrapped over and over and over again. We sat and we waited, and when she woke up and screamed we laughed and laughed.

She was a tall woman, probably handsome once, with a slow mind, a quick hand and a cold heart. She wasn’t what we were expecting or what we were promised. Other people’s Grannies made buns and gave cuddles, and took them for day’s out with packed lunches of French Fancies, Kia-ora orange juice and cheese and pineapple chunks. She gave us gone-off milkshakes.

But she could tell a story. She created worlds where husbands were war heroes and wifes were loving mothers and accomplished homemakers. Husbands never worked on the railways clearing dead rats or gambled the housekeeping money on the horses, and mothers didn’t give their daughters an orange and a lump of coal for Christmas.

She told of old English teatime traditions, bread and butter, cold cuts, jam decanted into cut glass pots and hot, sweet tea. Where children played outside on their bikes and parents played rummy and bridge. The bread was never mouldy and the meat was never gristle. The children never had just a single one-armed doll to play with, and the daddies never beat the mummies black and blue.

She told of a gentler way of life, where the children enjoyed long and happy childhoods without the trappings of modern life. They were never sent out to work aged 8 to fund the fathers’ drinking binges.

“Luce”, Dad used to call her. Supposedly short for Lucy, Lucifer was closer to the truth. They never got on, and he’d had to fight to free Mum from her clutches.

I don’t remember the day she died; to be honest I don’t even remember the year. She was the only grandparent I had ever known, but her death meant nothing to me. I’d spent 10 years being scared of her, 10 years laughing at her, and 10 years scared I’d end up like her.

They say mental illness runs in the genes. I used to focus on the merging and separating train tracks on the long, dull journey to her residential care home and wonder if I would also end up in the unflattering polyester uniform of the Sally Army, thrashing out Amazing Grace on my hip with the standard issue tambourine. Would I roam the halls of a warden-controlled care unit in my thermal vest, fur-edged slippers on my hands, muttering, “These aren’t my feet”? Would I cackle like Hecate and point at the bottom of a kindly Jamaican nurse called Hortense whilst she gave me a bedbath in a secure unit, and say, “I’m surprised you can sit down with that fat fanny, nigger”? Would I look bewildered at the notion I hadn’t eaten for 9 days, or that the lady sitting bolt upright in front of me on visitors’ day was my daughter and not Running Bear, my medium and invisible companion for 30 years? Or that the weeping girl with pigtails and short white ankle-socks next to her wasn’t my Uncle Robert but in fact my granddaughter? Would I buy myself 30 7” copies of “There’s no-one quite like Grandma” from Woolworth’s when I didn’t have a record player? Would I need a commode and then later on a nappy? Would I wake up screaming in the middle of the night in a locked-from-the-outside hospital ward with imagined frogs and toads sitting on the end of the bed playing “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam” on trumpets?

Would that be me? I would wonder as the train tracks merged together. Would I end up asking complete strangers if I’d had my dinner yet, with silent tears coursing down my paper-thin cheeks?

I wondered for years if I would share her fate? Would I end up alone and lonely, talking to the grass and twiddling my thumbs backwards and forwards?

And then the documents came. Mum had filled in the forms, and paid the fee and waited. And when the documents came we laughed. ‘Cause we knew it couldn’t be right, we knew we weren’t really related. I wouldn’t end up hugging my knees, rocking myself and moaning on a cold, hard lino floor. She wasn’t my Granny, and she wasn’t my Mum’s Mum. And we laughed and we cried, as I hugged myself and rocked a little in my chair.

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