As you will learn from reading this account, I was a perfectly horrible child in many respects and few stories reflect me in a poorer light than the one I am about to share. Sometimes the difference between genius and madness is failure. Other times, it’s a simple case of the idea being crap. This is the tale of an enquiring mind and a genuine desire to help turned bad. Very bad.
Gran-Gran, my dad’s mum, trained at the Royal Academy as a pianist. She used to play the piano at night when Dad and his brothers were frightened. The sound of Rachmaninov’s piano concerto drifting up from downstairs soothed him—still does. As a child, she, too was soothed by piano music drifting up from downstairs, but that was played by a friend of her parents; Chopin. I am ashamed at how little I remember of Gran-Gran, I know that at some point she had a nervous breakdown. After having a similar experience, but because of his Alzheimer’s rather than a breakdown, Dad told me how one morning Gran-Gran suddenly burst into tears at the breakfast table and couldn’t stop. He said it remains one of the most harrowing moments in his entire life. She went and lived in Bexhill for over six months with a companion. Then she was allowed to visit and finally, after over a year, I believe, she returned home.
When I was about eight or nine, I think, she got stomach cancer. Neither my brother nor I saw her for some time. Then she came to stay when she was officially recuperating from an operation to help it, although to be honest, I suspect it might have been classed as terminal by this time. She came to stay with us while ‘recovering’ I think to give Gin Gin, my grandfather, some respite from caring for her.
Before that point, I remember very little about Gran-Gran other than as a calm and benign presence—although I remembered more, then. She had dark hair—slate grey but it had been black, I think. She had a vein that stuck out a bit in the middle of her forehead, a joy which I have inherited, too. I can picture her sitting at the head of the dinner table in Byways, her and Gin Gin’s house, dishing out roast spuds and veg. She was a good cook, and I have the clock which hung on the wall beside her, a postman’s clock. Neither she, nor Gin Gin could ever persuade the number of dings, on the hour, to tie in with whatever number the hands were pointing to, at one point it even dinged thirteen times for one o’clock. I confess the dinger is in a chest, in pieces but I certainly intend to get it running at some point, although I’ll probably leave the bell side of it unwound. My husband and son did not grow up in a school so they are not able to sleep through anything quite the way I can.
What I do remember about Gran-Gran was that she was usually wearing the ghost of a smile and had a bit of a quiet twinkle around her eyes. She was also calm and lovely and clearly the glue holding everyone together.
However, after a two year absence being too ill to visit, when Gran-Gran came to stay with us, she didn’t seem to be the calm placid person that I remembered. Doubtless this was because she was ill, visually impaired and in a fair amount of pain but did that didn’t occur to young Einstein here? Oh no. Everyone else cottoned on but not me.
Gran-Gran’s blindness was caused by glaucoma. Everyone on both sides of my family has it. Basically, the blood pressure in your eyes gets too high for them and causes damage. There is no reversing this but if you get to it in time, it can be stopped. Gran-Gran would complain, often, that she couldn’t see although the evidence on many occasions suggested she could see a lot more than she thought—to my young eyes, at least. To be honest, I think it may have been less about not seeing and more about feeling a bit at sea, or perhaps it was a kind of shorthand complaint to sum up everything: that she was in pain and that she was, quite possibly, going to die of the disease she was fighting.
It must have been hard, staying with us; a draughty corridor-heavy house with a room at the top up about fifty stairs and the nearest bathroom down twenty six of them does not sound like an appealing place for an ill eighty year old. Unfamiliar surroundings, a strange and impenetrable heating and hot water system, a lavatory that would only flush if you pulled it just so … boys thundering around in adjacent rooms next door for most of the night, and the rats, of course, in the eves, behind the wall of our spare room, where she slept. The ones that scurried about above my bedroom. She must have heard those. And her Gin-Gin, my grandfather, who she loved, who tended to her at home, he wasn’t there—it was respite care, after all—and although she understood he needed a rest she must have felt very lost and lonely without him.
Now that I’m older, I realise she was pining for Gin-Gin and that she put up with a fair bit. But at the time it never occurred to me that our house was horrific by normal standards. Instead, I thought she complained a lot and I felt that was mean to Mum who was doing her utmost to make her stay with us as pleasurable and comfortable as possible. In my defence—though it isn’t much—I didn’t appreciate how ill she was. There were successes which I didn’t appreciate, too.
That stay, I believe, was the time when Mum discovered that Gran-Gran didn’t like burned toast but had it most breakfasts because one of her three sons, or Gin-Gin, my grandfather, would always burn and then spurn a slice of bread. Gran-Gran would eat it because she couldn’t bear to see it go to waste and eventually the myth was born that she liked her toast that way. At last, someone now realised that she didn’t like burned toast, after all. How happy she was to have a slice of normal toast that had not been purposely incinerated for her. She could have complained about the rats, too but she never once mentioned them, and she must have heard them. Mum and Dad were epic hosts, so doubtless she enjoyed the human part of the experience, or at least as much as she could through the trials of being ill and missing Gin-Gin. These are all things that were too subtle for me to see unless someone spelled them out in black and white, and that wasn’t the kind of thing you did in those days. All I could see was that Mum’s efforts seemed thankless and that Gran-Gran taking a great deal of my mother’s attention away from me and my brother. It was made worse by the fact that I was all at sea with this new grumpy Gran-Gran whom I felt I didn’t know. I wanted the old one back, without understanding that Gran-Gran no longer had the strength to be her.
With hindsight I know it was a difficult visit. Mum let slip just recently, that at the end of her life Gran-Gran kept bursting into tears, perhaps that was then. Perhaps that was the tension I picked up on. And of course, we had to respect Gran-Gran’s wishes at all times and they were wishes that weren’t always compatible with a lively eight and ten year old.
She would quite often ask Giles and I to keep the noise down or stop doing something or tell us we shouldn’t do something. We were told she wasn’t well and to keep out of the way so we did; as much as possible. That particular brief that was easier for Giles at boarding school than me at day school. She kept saying she couldn’t see but at the same time, it was amazing what she could see if it was a child licking a knife at the dinner table, playing corridor football or generally doing something they shouldn’t. She was not afraid to tell us off when Mum wasn’t around either which, we felt, was not her job. She would ask my Mum for help with certain things which we would then see her happily doing on her own when Mum was out of earshot or there was no-one adult around. What I now understand was her saving precious capacity and only using it when she had to, I thought was her blagging help to get attention when she didn’t need it. These days, I also understand that glaucoma comes and goes, so she would genuinely have had days where the light was more amenable and she was able to see way more than on others, and also, her reduced sight must have frustrated her terribly, but did I realise this then? Did I bollocks?
‘Mum, she can see,’ I said petulantly, one day while Gran-Gran was upstairs resting after a particularly difficult session. ‘She says she can’t but she can.’
‘No sweetheart, she can’t.’ My mum said.
Poor fool! I thought. She’s being hoodwinked! I must show her the truth.
And that is when I hit on a plan to prove to Mum and Dad that Gran-Gran could see. A plan so simple, so elegant, that would be easy to carry out. A test of her visual skills that, I believed, I could implement without harming anyone. A plan with the straightforward logic, intelligence of concept and validity of results you might obtain with … say … the ducking stool.
When my brother came home from school, I explained my plan to him. He was now old enough to have a least the beginnings of an understanding of subtlety and nuance in the emotional landscape.
‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea kiddo,’ was all he said.
I thought about it a bit, decided he was wrong, it was a great idea, so I did it, anyway.
Carefully, I tied piece of cotton across the bottom of the stairs, stretching from the iron banister one side to the leg of a small chest in which we kept the shoe cleaning kit the other. I made sure I did granny knots rather than reef knots because if my quarry didn’t see the cotton I wanted her to just walk on through it without noticing or being hurt. At the top of the stairs to the middle floor I did the same but I had to tape one end of the cotton to the wall.
Yes, I’m afraid you read that right, I set a trip wire for my eighty year old grandmother at the top of a flight of carpeted, but concrete underneath, stairs and genuinely thought that was OK.
The rationale was simple, as I’d explained to my brother, Gran-Gran would either not see the cotton, in which case, my crap knots would untie as she walked through it and all would be well. If she did see the cotton and complained about it it would prove that she could see.
Having tied the cotton in place Gran-Gran failed to surface within a few nanoseconds so I got bored of waiting, wandered off and forgot about it. Some hours later, I gather Gran-Gran did see it, proving, conclusively that she could see. Except that, looking back on it, what I suspect she proved was that my granny knots were a lot less likely to slip easily undone than I thought.
I remember little about the aftermath. Apart from Gran-Gran being very cross with me and Mum coming and finding me and telling me to go and untie every single trip wire I’d set AT ONCE! Gran-Gran left soon after. Unsurprisingly she didn’t come to stay again. I hope I apologised to her, but I can’t remember so the last words I actually recall having with my paternal grandmother were a robust defence of what she saw as a sustained effort to murder her, and what I saw as a service to the community—in proving that her blindness was selective and reinforcing my belief that it was done to attention-seek. I am so sorry Gran-Gran, if you’re somewhere up there reading this.
As I believe I mentioned, I really was a vile child.
Looking back at it now, I realise how black and white things are to you when you are small. I feel the same, inside, as I did then but I am not the same person. The subtleties of what adults say, as opposed to what they actually mean, are no longer quite so lost on me. True, I am incredibly socially lumpy but at least I do understand that now. I am more tuned-in to my inability to see the world the way normal people do. I am aware of the grey, even if I cannot always find it or sometimes find too much. And I guess it’s these kinds of horrific blunders that taught me to be a bit more circumspect about what I do and say, about blurting out my first emotional response to whatever has happened. To double think, I guess, before I act.
Interestingly, I don’t remember my parents being angry after my Mum’s initial stern instruction to remove all the cotton, but I do remember the feeling of overwhelming sadness emanating from them as they explained that yes, they knew Gran-Gran could often see more than she pretended but that she was old, and ill and part of love is being tolerant of a person’s foibles now, for the sake of who they really are inside, and would be, had they not a burden of pain (and in this case, terminal cancer) to carry. I think I apologised when my parents explained. I hope to heaven I did. Doubtless Dad had got an earful from her, too, but I was the one who deserved it.