Getting old had caught Malcolm unawares, and now he was seventy he was preoccupied with what that meant. His parents had survived into their nineties, and he was still hopeful he might match them, and the symptoms of old age could wait.
His mother had reached ninety-six before she died. Born in 1913, she was the youngest of five. Malcolm had watched over her long decline from the sidelines. He paid regular visits and sat patiently with her, listening to repetitive reminiscences. As she advanced into her nineties, she knew that death was the next call. He sensed she was putting the past into order, reliving her earlier days, her childhood, and her regrets. Perhaps it would soon be his turn; past life experienced in old photograph albums, home movies, reunions, and increasingly frequent funerals.
Not long before his mother died he was having a cup of tea with her, and she surprised him with something he didn’t remember having heard before. She seemed to be having difficulty mentioning it. Unusually she was distressed. “I’ve been thinking about my mother.”
Malcolm just remembered his grandmother, stooped and deaf but very kind to him, insisting on a kiss, and always with some present or other. He remembered hoping the present would be money, and she usually obliged with a half crown. But he couldn’t remember her voice or what she had ever said to him, just the ritual of a visit and the dusty smell of the room. He was aware that his own mother hadn’t got on with her. Now she began to talk about it.
“She didn’t like me, and I’ve always blamed myself for that. I thought I knew why. Did I tell you about that day in 1917?”
As a child Malcolm had had no inkling of these adult tensions. Only as he got older had he been made aware of the long history between his mother and grandmother. She was long since dead and, as his mother got older, it was all in the distant past, almost irrelevant so far as he was concerned. But now he was conscious of his own mortality, he knew how small occurrences echoed down a generation, became background noise.
1917. The Great War. His mother was always going back to it in some form or another.
“Which particular day?” he asked.
She was sitting in her usual armchair with her feet stretched out on a padded extension in front. She put her hands up to her face. He thought she might be crying. “It’s all right, Mummy. Don’t talk about it if it upsets you.” But he was curious and hoped she would.
“I was four,” she said, dropping her hands back to her lap. “At least I think I was. I must have been. It was in the summer, or later on. We had a big wide hall in that house with a long chest in it. There were cupboard doors in the front. It was my pretend doll’s house.”
“What did you look like? I mean, I can’t imagine you as a little girl.”
“I don’t know on that day, but I was probably wearing little lace-up boots, a long smock with a white collar, that sort of thing. Long hair and ribbons on top. Anyway, I was playing putting things in and out of the cupboards, on the floor, I think. I could see Mother in the big kitchen right at the back, the door was open and she was sitting at the table, her elbow on it, her head resting in her hand. Sometimes she looked up at me. I don’t know where the maid was. The kitchen was lit up by the sun all bright, there was a big window at the side, I remember that, but where I was in the hall it was dark except the front door had a stained-glass window with flower patterns and the coloured light from it on the floor where I was sitting. There was carpet down the corridor to the kitchen, I suppose it was Indian, reds and yellows and blues. Opposite the chest was the hall stand with hooks and an oval mirror. Father’s bowler hat was on one of the hooks.”
“Wasn’t he at the front?”
“Yes, he wasn’t around, so he must have been.”
“You remember it so vividly. I can see it.”
“Some things are like that. There’s no explanation why one moment should be like a film in your head and some other time a blur, nothing. I think I can remember things when I was little best of all. Funny isn’t it, dear?”
She looked up at the cornice on the other side of the room, beginning to meditate perhaps.
“Is that it?” he said after a moment.
She concentrated again. “The front door bell rattled, it never worked properly, and then a big knocking. Mother called from the kitchen, ‘Open it, Alice.’ I could just reach the door knob if I stood on tiptoe, I was rather proud of being able to do that. It was a big door and I slowly pulled it and in the porch stood a telegram boy. We don’t have them now but then we did, in a uniform, flat peaked cap and a leather belt with a pouch attached. His bike was leaning by the gate. ‘Telegram for Mrs Grant,’ he said. “Take it to your Mum and I’ll wait for a reply.’ I ran to Mother, holding the envelope in my hand. I gave it to her and went back to the hall to my dolls. Then I looked back. Mother had opened it and put her hand to her face and made a noise. The telegram boy must have seen. He said to me, ‘I’m sorry, Miss, I’m very sorry. No reply, is there?’ And he touched his cap and went off on his bike, and I pushed the heavy door shut. Mother was wailing, the telegram was on the floor. ‘Jack, Jack, my lovely boy. Oh, Jack, why you, why you?’”
His mother stopped talking and there were tears in her eyes. Then, “Jack was the eldest, my brother. I don’t think I realised what she meant, and I started to sing a playground ditty we all used to sing.
Twenty-five Gothas in the sky
They bomb our town
The houses fall down
And all the people go dye.
“Then Mother screamed at me and ran from kitchen down the hall, and slapped me again and again. ‘Don’t sing that awful song, Jack’s dead, dead, only nineteen, my first one, Jack, Jack.’ And I yelled and yelled. Then she picked me up and held me to her and turned this way and that, clutching me and saying, ‘Oh Alice, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, darling’. I thought I’d killed him with a telegram. That’s how it seemed. After that she never seemed to like me much. It was my fault. I’d brought the bad news.” She closed her eyes.
Malcolm hadn’t heard this before. As she described what had happened it seemed to come alive. The scene was like a Dutch interior painting, the kitchen in sunlight in the background, a figure at a table, in the middle-ground the hall and corridor and perhaps a staircase at the side, and in the foreground the little girl poised on the floor with her toys, a domestic scene about to erupt with a drama.
In his mind Malcolm reset it from the point of view of the telegram boy. He’s only fifteen, this is another batch of war telegrams, he cycles up the avenue, finds the house, leans his bike by the gate, saunters up to the front door, the bell works badly, he bangs the door, a little girl with long hair dressed in a smock slowly opens it, she blinks in the light, a woman sits at a table at the back of the house, he hands the envelope to the girl, she runs to the woman, there’s a howl, he knows why, how many times has he got to do this, he knows what it says, Regret to inform you, etc., he apologises and doesn’t wait, he has others to deliver, Passchendaele is on.
Now Malcolm views it from the kitchen. The daily maid hasn’t turned up, it’s the war—what can you expect? His grandmother has done the washing up herself and made a cup of tea before she tackles the rest of the clearing up. Alice is playing in the hall, she’s completely absorbed, there is knocking at the door, she calls to Alice, it opens slowly, she sees the telegram, she feels a chill at the heart, this is the harbinger of death, she knows already, Alice runs with the envelope, Grandma tears it open, can barely focus, doesn’t want to read the words, for a moment she holds it to her chest, she’s seen Regret so which of them is it? Does she in her heart hope that it’s her husband rather than Jack? One of them, but which? She slowly makes herself look at the paper. Jack, no, Jack, it mustn’t be, Jack, nineteen, the first, my first. She puts her hand to her face and now she cries out, now she sobs. And Alice sings in the hall that silly ditty, death from the sky and she has death in a telegram, she runs down the hall and slaps her daughter, and remembers her son, so proud in the uniform, so keen to join the fight, stupid, stupid war.
His mother had opened her eyes and was talking again. He paid attention.
“Most of my life I thought Mother blamed me for Jack dying. I know that’s strange but I had been the messenger. She never got over his death, not really, even when Dad came home for good one day and put his army hat on my head and we laughed.
“Of course, we all carried on but there was something missing in our family after that, even when the war was over and gone and we had the second one. We went to Jack’s cemetery in Belgium in the nineteen sixties. It’s called Sanctuary Wood, something like that. It was so peaceful, green trees, a view of fields, and Royal Fusiliers on the gravestone and his name. Mother knelt down and put her arms round it and stayed with him like that for ages. I had to pull her up, she’d almost frozen to the stone. I cried too, though I couldn’t remember him very much. Not as clear as that day in the hall.”
“Was she nicer to you after that?” Malcolm asked.
“We got on well enough. She’d begun to rely on me rather than the others. Then she told me something not long before she died. It explained things. It wasn’t Jack’s death. I’d imagined that was why she didn’t seem to like me, given myself an explanation. But I’d been wrong all those years. It wasn’t that at all. It was me, my being. When my parents had had four children she didn’t want another. Then I was on the way. She was furious. She told me that she jumped off the bed several times a day to get a miscarriage, and when that didn’t happen she went to the doctor to get something and he refused, it was criminal then. Dad wouldn’t let her go to the backstreet, stopped her. And I clung on inside, determined to be alive. But she resented me, an unwanted fifth baby.”
“Did she never really tell you that before?”
“I’m rather glad she didn’t. I could live with the Jack story because I could sort of see why it might have been. When she got round to the truth I was just terribly sad. I had a painful time growing up. I was always last to be served, always at the bottom of the table, always in hand-me-down clothes. That was the truth of it. Now I’ve outlived them all. It’s funny that something which only lasts a few minutes can change everything, the telegram that afternoon did that and gave me a myth.”
Malcolm shook his head. He thought, was this what happened? You audit your past life with an increasing obsession, it seems clear, and then you remember or discover forgotten events which shaped it for better or worse. You thought you had an understanding of the assumptions that shaped you, and then a remark, a sentence, or a letter, dissolves them.
He said, “Really, Mother. The reality was much worse: for you not to be wanted. Didn’t she think about what it meant for you? Did she apologise?”
“All she said was that she had to get it off her chest, so that I knew how it had been for her.”
“But not for you,” he said. There were no apologies. No one was responsible. “It wasn’t very kind. Actually, it was a shocking thing to do. I remember her as rather a sweet old woman.”
“Children only see what they see.”
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© 2018 Roger Jefferies
A retired part-time resident of Broadstairs for twenty-five years. Roger writes fiction, especially short stories. He likes France and food.