It began with me having to do an essay for school about my grandmother. Only some of us were asked to do it. It was for a competition for a visiting writer who was coming to our class the following month.
‘Is that all he does, Sir, write?’
‘Yes that’s what he is, a writer, just like your father is an actuary I believe.’
This may have been the first time the boy had a name for what his father was. Those of us who were chosen made a show of huffing and puffing and told the others that they were lucky, but secretly I was pleased. The essay was to be about how the old spent their Saturday nights. Mr McGrane was particularly interested in how those who lived alone fared on such a busy evening. He must have chosen those of us who had grannies living alone, maybe it was not because we were good at essays. We could concentrate on aspects of loneliness, were they more poignant in contrast to the fullness of the clamour and clatter of a Saturday night? Poignant. We could look it up in the dictionary. And while we were at it we could find out the difference between bathos and pathos. The ones who weren’t chosen laughed at this and some of them pointed their fingers at us. Mr McGrane saw them and said that everyone had to look up the words.
‘And I would like you to stick as near to the truth as possible.’
It was this commandment that made me niggle my father over and over again that evening and the next day to bring me to our grandmother’s at 9 o’clock on the Saturday night. That was not a time that we would normally visit her. I had decided on 9 o’clock because I thought that the loneliness mentioned by Mr McGrane would have set in by then and I’d be able to see it for myself without my grandmother or my father knowing what I was up to.
When we arrived at the door she wasn’t in and my father seemed annoyed by this. We puttered about for a while but she didn’t come back.
‘Are you sure Mr McGrane meant you to be so precise. Seems more like a report to me than an essay. Surely an essay should be more imaginative.’
I hated it when my father got all know-all like that. As if he knew better than my teacher. I said, bolstered by the order to accuracy, ‘Yes.’
‘Oh well then, we’d better look for her I suppose’ my father said.
We went next door to my grandmother’s neighbour, an old woman who scared me the way that I think grandmothers are maybe meant to but which mine didn’t. My father asked her if she might know where my grandmother was.
‘What time is it? That blooming clock is never right.’
This struck me as odd, surely there would be more than one clock in the house. Ours had at least four that I could think of at this minute. Maybe I would put in the essay that my grandmother’s neighbour had only one clock which was always wrong.
‘It’s eh, let me see,’ and my father pulled back the sleeve of his jacket to look at his watch which has a purple face. I could hear a baby crying at the house on the other side.
‘Half past nine now,’ he said.
‘Half past nine on a Saturday night. Well, she’ll have her feet well up back in Cannings by now. Cannings you know, the pub.’
My father closed his face. You have to know him well to see him doing this. I know him well, or at least the bits of him that I notice.
‘Cannings, the pub,’ she said again, putting the emphasis on the last word.
‘Yes. Yes,’ my father said, and my grandmother’s neighbour chuckled.
‘What did she mean back in Cannings?’ I asked when we were in the car.
‘Oh she’s from the West, they say back with everything.’
My father sounded cross. I was only trying to get him to open his face again.
Maybe if we hadn’t gone to the pub it would have been alright. He parked the car in a sullen manner. I would need to look that up too with the bathos word. I hear words and like them but sometimes use them in the wrong place. He said, ‘Stay there,’ unnecessarily. Even I knew that children were not allowed in pubs after nine o’clock at night. There had been an uproar about it which I couldn’t understand. What on earth could happen that you would absolutely have to have a child in a pub after nine o’clock at night? And what was the difference between a pub and a bar? I hadn’t brought my book with me, we had after all only been going to visit our grandmother. There was nothing to read in the car except some scraps but they did alright.
My father came out from the pub a few minutes later—I’m not sure exactly how long he was in there but I hadn’t got bored. He was fuming. That word is definitely correct. I thought it best not to talk on the way home.
I was sent to bed unreasonably early. Later, as the noise from the kitchen got louder I left my room and sat on the top of the stairs. There is always a child on the stairs, otherwise how would we learn.
‘You want to see the crowd she was with.’
‘Did you know any of them?’
‘Not one. And the way she…’
‘Tell me again what she said,’ my mother interrupted, sounding as if she wanted to put the answer out flat on the table and examine it the way she does when she sews something.
‘She said that I should be grateful she had a life and wasn’t sitting at home alone moping about. She said that I had no business checking up on her, that she’d had enough constriction when she was rearing me.’
‘Are you sure it was constriction she said?’
‘Yes I’m sure,’ my father ground out, ‘I would hardly make it up.’
‘And did she really ask you to leave?’ my mother asked in her kind voice.
‘Well, as good as.’
The conversation went on like this for a long time, sounding liked turned-down music or faraway wind, but I couldn’t follow it really and also I did get bored because I couldn’t understand what they were getting so exercised about. You can use that word as a description. It does not mean that they have been running or swimming all night.
On Monday when Mr McGrane asked me how the essay was going I said, ‘Fine.’
It was very soon after this, maybe Wednesday, that my grandmother arrived at our house full of high dudgeon—I love when I can think that’s what people are in. I’m almost certain that if the pub episode had not happened we would not have got that visit. This time I was out in the garden, and although my father closed the door—now that I think of it already not prepared to let things return to normal, geared up for a shouting match—I moved up to the back wall and sat down under the open window. My older sister was getting married next year I think. There was a lot of fuss, even already, I’d heard my mother saying. Sometimes it would last for an entire hour but then it would die down for days. Sometimes there would be the word wedding wedding blowing up all over the place. And then there would be weeks when no one at all mentioned the caravan as my mother called it. I didn’t care about the ins and outs of it, but I presumed it would be interesting to be a part of it on the actual day. It was also a very long way away so I could see no reason to think about it yet. So it surprised me that our grandmother arrived so early to discuss it. Although I’m sure this could not really be called a discussion.
‘As you are well aware I have no interest in ribbons so clearly I’ll be having some trouble with this,’ my grandmother said. She must then have thrown something on the table, a letter or a card. I don’t know if she gave my parents time to finish reading it—there was quiet for a very short time.
‘Now I know that there are sewers in the world, people who sew’—even I knew that this was a dig at my mother—‘but they don’t have to stick needles into everything.’
‘Just a minute,’ my father said.
‘Yes,’ my grandmother said, letting the word turn up at the end, as if it was a question or being said by an Australian.
‘Just a minute,’ my father repeated, ‘this is no way to talk to my wife.’
‘Oh for heaven’s sake, Liam, your what, she has a name, and actually I’m not just talking to Gertrude, I’m talking to you too. You may not be allowed to say that your daughter has lost the complete run of herself but I can. I will not, I repeat will not, be told by anyone what to wear and no one will ask me to put a ribbon on a hat. Who said I was going to wear a hat anyway?‘
‘I don’t think she meant it like that,’ my mother said.
‘And may I ask what way you think she meant it? This is quite clear. An order to wear a specific colour so that I can fit into some ludicrous pattern which this young one has in mind.’
‘But is there anything wrong with the colours matching on the day?’ my mother asked.
My father had gone quiet.
‘No indeed there’s not, if it so happens that they do. But that’s the point, if it so happens.’
Clearly our grandmother was trying to show some interest but I could tell that she didn’t care about colours at all. And just then my father piped up, ‘This isn’t about colours at all, is it mother? This is about your attitude to marriage.’
Whoa, that was some leap.
I could feel the silence outside and the leg that was under my other one went funny.
‘Maybe you’re right,’ my grandmother finally said. ‘If you must know, and I think you’re old enough now to be able to bear it, I do have serious difficulties with marriage. I think it’s something that should be done privately and not particularly referred to again unless legally necessary.‘
She sounded as if she was on a home run.
‘If you remember I never referred to your father as my husband until he died, and if you’ll care to remember, this had no bearing on what I felt about or for him.’
‘Your trouble is that you have no respect for tradition…’ my father said.
‘Tradition my arse…’
‘Look there’s no need to be so rude.’
‘Oh grow up, that’s not being rude.’
It was funny hearing someone tell my father to grow up. I had to scratch myself so that I wouldn’t be found under the window.
There was a moment’s silence, as if my grandmother realised the futility of it all. I had looked up ‘futility’ the night before. It sounded too as if they were all waiting to see who would go next.
My mother then said, ‘Could you not just…’ but my grandmother interrupted in a soft voice, ‘No I could not just anything. This is what principle means. Someone has to stand up to this…’
She didn’t finish the sentence, as if even she knew that the next word out of her mouth could be too crucial.
‘And as for tradition, these days anything can be made up into it. It could be something started five years ago. Any old gobshite in a bar could tell them it was always done and they’d believe him.’
‘You’d know all about that.’
I didn’t know if it was fair of my father to say that. My grandmother then changed her voice into the sort of a one that my mother sometimes uses on us, only us. It comes from outside the sound of normal conversation.
‘In this tradition of yours,’ my grandmother said, ‘I see that maternal respect has got
It sounded as if she was just at the beginning of her sentence but my father interrupted in the voice that he uses on the telephone if someone rings from work— everyone was changing voices now—‘I’m sorry you feel like that. Do you want a lift anywhere?’
I could hear him coming towards the window so I had to crouch my way across to the hedge and slip behind the coal shed away out of sight. It’s not used as a coal shed any more since we got the natural gas. Everything is thrown into it. I didn’t hear the car leaving.
At teatime the faces were all closed.
And that night when I went out on the stairs I could hear a real dingdust of a shouting match. When their voices get that way they wouldn’t notice me even if they tripped over me. The shoutings all ran into each other and it was hard to make out where one began and the other ended, but I did hear plainly my mother saying, ‘Your mother was always the same. Happy away up there on her high horse. I’m not surprised she has ended up…’ I couldn’t hear the next bit.
‘And as for these views of hers. Always superior in her mind to everyone else. Could never have the same look on things as everyone else. Oh no, Miss Precious.’
She was talking about my grandmother!
‘There was no call for that, no call at all,’ my father shouted.
I had to agree with him. I heard a door slamming, saw a slice of light land on the banisters and knew that someone was going to make towards the hall and in truth too I had decided that it was best for me to hear no more anyway. I slid my bottom across the linoleum into my bedroom. My mother had changed all the upstairs carpet for linoleum—I liked the colour of that word—she said it was healthier. You could never tell the connections that some people make, they must think a lot to come up with them.
The following weekend I was taken away by my parents to the west and we all had a very smooth time, people holding hands and all that.
On Monday Mr McGrane asked me how the essay was going and I said, ‘Fine, Sir.’
He also said that in the opinion of some Wittgenstein tried to destroy philosophy because he could not understand it. He added: ‘There is no point in destroying something if you don’t know what it is. Then again for many that’s why they destroy things, precisely because they do not know their worth. I hope you got that. Some of you may need to know it. And he destroyed Mr Russell too.’
Whoever he was.
I am already a perhaps sort of person. Perhaps everything would have gone completely back to normal if my essay had not won the competition. And been printed in the local paper. Oh shite. I can say that out loud because my parents seem to have too much else on their minds to notice and to reprimand me. I got a postcard from my grandmother congratulating me and this seems to have let all hell loose altogether. But my father did say yesterday, ‘See, I told you an imaginative approach would have been better.’ The fact that he referred to it at all makes me think that his face might open again and that I’ll be able to speak to my grandmother some day.