You hate the smell of the place. The sickly stench of cheap air freshener, rather than neutralising the compacted odour of aged bodies, urine-soaked furnishings, and stale cooking, highlights it. You loathe sight of the magnolia walls, the poorly reproduced generic prints of countryside scenes, the institutional, mint-green, dralon seats. You pity your grandfather’s baggy frame, his wrinkled incapacity, his silent distance. When he doesn’t recognise your voice, it makes you want to cry.
You wonder why he smiles so freely, at the walls, and towards the fluttering, fading curtains.
You think his restless flitting eyes are nigh on blind, but he sees sights to which you are not privy.
He sits at a dinner table, relishing shepherd’s pie with home grown potatoes and carrots. The sun’s rays fall onto a dark green mantlepiece on which sit several crinolined ladies, fashioned in porcelain. Monochrome photos of two young heroes who have yet to die for Britain, shoulder their rifles, proud uncles eager to do their bit. A third photo shows a shy couple, frowning as the camera clicks. The man wears baggy corduroys and a tweed cap. In his hand he holds a shepherds crook. The woman cradles a baby wrapped in a woollen shawl.
The three white plates are scraped clean, knives and forks placed neatly together, glasses emptied of water. His father sighs contentedly, leans back in his chair, and tamps down tobacco in the bowl of his pipe.
His mother sends him out to play, safe in the knowledge that this rural farm is far from the danger of bomb attacks. He skips down gritty lanes, grabbing at plumes of meadowsweet, stripping off the sweet, creamy blooms, flinging them in the air, watching them fall like confetti. Grinning to himself he thinks how much better life is for a child than a man. He wants to stay forever in this perfect time – never to grow up, never to have the responsibilities of a job and family. He wants his days to be a constant round of romping in the fields, soaking in the summer sun, returning home when his stomach tells him it is dinner time, enjoying board games with his parents in the evening, or helping his tin soldiers to defeat Hitler’s armies, and bring everlasting peace.
His eyelids sink, and you think he’s asleep, but his head slants just so, and an expression of ecstasy floods his face.
He hears a recording of Vera Lynn’s voice, drifting through a cottage window.
“There’ll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover,”
but you are too far in his future to hear the music. All you hear is the traffic roaring along the busy road outside. You reach for his wizened hand. His smile widens.
You can’t understand what reason he could possibly have to smile. Living in this place, you’d think he would want to die. You don’t realise that in his mind, he is in the pink, having the time of his life.
“Tomorrow, just you wait and see.
There’ll be love and laughter
And peace ever after.
Tomorrow, when the world is free,”
The ghost of a squeeze makes your hand tingle. His old bones feel so tiny, so fragile.
His lips lips part. His voice is no more than a whisper:
A chill goes through you, and lodges in your heart.
“Grandad,” you say, your voice urgent, “Grandad Jimmy!”
He can’t hear you, your voice is too far away.
Vera Lynn has such a beautiful voice. He knows – has always known – that she sings her song just for him.
“The shepherd will tend his sheep.
The valley will bloom again.
And Jimmy will go to sleep
In his own little room again.
There’ll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover,
Tomorrow, just you wait and see.”
With horror, you notice your hand is tightly gripping his, crushing his fingers together. You think you’re hurting him. You let go, and his hand flops. He sinks sideways, the beatific smile frozen on his face.
Outside, the light has a pink hue. A blue bird flies past, swooping and soaring, up, up high into the sky. You watch until it is out of sight.
The Daily Post #Pink
©Jane Paterson Basil