11th February 1926 – 9th March 2011
Cycling down the road towards me is a man with fluorescent orange trousers, a bright blue jacket and a grey wooly hat – even though its summer. Unsurprisingly he’s known around town. As he cycles around a corner he spots a bright yellow treasure chest, full of gold (better known to us as a skip). Filled with excitement he turns the bike around and pedals off towards it. He carefully balances the bike (one of his 67) against the skip and circles around it – his eyes widening. He finds the best angle then hoists himself up and stretches in. Out of it he pulls firewood, bricks, children’s toys and anything else he can get his hands on that might come in useful someday. He attaches it to the back of his bike and continues on his way. The collection of rubbish slowly builds at home.
There’s an old church building with big stained-glass windows down Cambridge road. 41 years ago he bought it and decided to live in it – as you do. Most of it is cornered off by the church pews or a pile of bicycles (I wasn’t kidding about the 67). The front entrance is almost hidden by the overgrowth and only the bravest would dare try and get round to one of the side entrances these days. Inside the fire is lit, the lights are low, the extractor fan is whirring and “Late night Lisa” is playing on the radio. Covering most of the floor is a model railway set, with around 100 locomotives. He sits on his old arm-chair with a knitted multicoloured blanket on the back. He’s drinking wine and enjoying good food.
I’m 6 years old. He’s looking after us. We go for bike rides and pick apples and pears from the “poo poo alley”. Mum disapproves. He takes us to the nearby park and gets angry as we trample through the flowerbeds…so we do it more. He creates an entire garden at the side of his house so that I can have my own den with Clare. He cooks amazing food every week and embarrasses me by being unlike anyone else’s grandad.
Some years later Nath and I are round for lunch. We’ve switched on TV’s about a million times before – its really not that hard – but Grandad’s convinced that if we touched his TV we’d surely get it wrong and break it. Only he knows how to do it correctly. His colour TV shows a picture that looks almost black & white. As we try and watch the show he rambles on about how most people these days have their colour settings all wrong, and that his TV, unlike any other has them set absolutely on the mark.
He’s given me his watercolour set and a few of his best brushes – he’s encouraging the aspiring artist in me. I’m sitting at the table painting a picture. He comes over and applauds my efforts generously. He then picks up the brush and corrects my slightly wonky moon to make it into the perfect circle. He applauds his own efforts even more generously. Claims of “aren’t I brilliant?” can be heard for the rest of the afternoon. 10 years later I find this old painting in a box somewhere and show it to him. “What a perfectly spherical moon” is his only remark. He laughs.
Some years later I’m picking him up to take him back to mum and dad’s for dinner. It takes him about half an hour to get ready and get to the car. I’m impatient. As we drive off round the corner he demands that I park up and go fetch some rosemary from the front garden of someone else’s house. He assures me that I’m allowed to do so and that he has the permission of the owner. What he fails to tell me until some weeks later is that the owner stopped living in that house many years ago. My rosemary collection continues week by week…more than once someone came to the window while I was rummaging in their front garden. I’d grab a handful and make a run for it. I think I was always more scared that I’d never hear the end of it if I returned to him empty handed.
The phone is ringing. Usually quick to answer a call, the entire family has detected a different ring tone than usual. We know who’s on the other end. Glancing round the room we debate who got it last time. It was me. So Nath picks it up: “ooo ooo, whooooo is it? Graaaaandad”. I take it as a lucky escape and duck out of the room, fully aware that Nath will be caught up on the phone for at least the next half hour if not more.
We’re playing Pictionary at Christmas. Nate’s on his side, getting frustrated. The word is ‘concrete’. Everyone else draws a pavement – and gets the answer almost instantly. He continues slowly with his drawing…but we’re confused. “A table?”, “A right angle?”, “A chair?” …no, no, he’s carefully drawing a structural diagram of a reinforced concrete beam. The next word is “glasses”…rather than drawing them he simply takes off his own and points at them.
It’s monday night. The family is round for dinner. He’s telling us any joke he can remember. We’re not really listening. He thinks he’s hilarious. He wont stop talking about something and everyone else has moved on from the conversation. He doesn’t mind – he just continues. It’s 8pm, which can mean only one thing: University Challenge. The one person you can’t make quiet suddenly demands the entire room silent so he can listen to the questions as he eats his meal (which we all finished an hour or so ago). The competition begins. Nath angles the TV so he can’t see it…and puts on teletext so that the answers can be seen before they’re heard. Nath cheats his way to victory. It takes Grandad a while to clock on. Even when others legitimately win (which granted isn’t often) he won’t believe it. He doesn’t just look like Albert Einstein he has the brain to match!
I have stacks of letters in a box. They make for interesting reading. War time stories appear from time to time – but more commonly I just get told what the current temperature is, what he’s had for dinner, what steam locomotive he’s just brought or what Brian Williams has done to upset him this week. I get cut-outs from his Sainsbury’s receipt to show me that dad saved him 76p on a can of tuna or something similar – nothing better in life than a bargain. Every letter is sent in a re-used or self-made envelope with carefully cut out pictures from his train magazine, his amazingly neat handwriting covering every inch of the paper, and each one addressed to “My dearest Sarah”.
That’s my Grandad.
He’s unlike any other.