So it was a Saturday and I was a young child, just past toddler age – quite a few Saturdays ago now actually. I was not a rambunctious kid; more a meek little watcher, a quiet little tyke who would learn whatever he could from what the adults were getting up to. I watched them for clues as to how to be; how they said things to each other, which bits they laughed at, what seemed to be important to them. It wasn’t greatly interesting, you know, just the middle class chatter you have to grow up with; the fantastic kitchen gizmo my aunt had just bought, or how much my parents paid for their double glazing.
This Saturday, I was at Grandma’s house; a bungalow in Worcester which I loved with all my heart. It was probably about 40 years old, on its own plot, lined up next to a massive, whitewashed Georgian property on the right and an old Edwardian care home on the left. It always had an understated grandeur about it; electric gates and garage door, herringbone paving and a walled garden. I was on the front room floor with my Lego, passively building a castle while my ear was tuned in to the conversation. My Grandma was complaining that she and my Grandpa couldn’t get around too well any more, and that she needed some help around the house – someone to do a few errands for her. This interested me, as I didn’t know what it all meant; why couldn’t they get around anymore? What was wrong with them? I suppose I was aware of mortality, vaguely, but the aging process was not something I had yet grasped with both hands.
“Doug doesn’t like going out in the car”, Grandma complained, “he kept bumping into things, and it got him all frustrated”.
“Bloody hell Pam!” Grandpa chimed in; “stop saying that to everybody, I didn’t bump into anything. That stupid woman on the roundabo-”
“Doug, you were going the wrong way round the roundabout, so don’t come that with me. The keys are on the hook, so if you want to run out for your Berocca, be my guest.”
Grandpa sunk down slightly in his chair and went back to his stamp collection, muttering something about the state of the world under his breath.
As far as I could tell, my grandparents were fairly mad. It was a sort of charismatic madness, because it felt to me like the whole thing was a joke – they knew they were slowly becoming infirm, but they took it at a stride akin to packing all their troubles in their old kit bags, while continuing to smile. In retrospect, it was quite inspiring.
So my mother, brother and I left for home that day and nothing was out of the ordinary. Many meals, mornings at nursery, hot nights, cold nights, red cars, hours playing with my Lego, tantrums and annoying questions passed before I was back at my grandparents’ house. I was a few months older, and in that time my Grandpa had passed away. I cried, but didn’t really understand the words; ‘asbestosis’, ‘respiratory problems’, ‘anaemic’ or ‘weak heart’ with any great conviction. My Grandma sat drinking tea with my mother and her two sisters. I couldn’t smell my Grandpa’s musk anymore, and the neutral smell in the air that took its place was synonymous with sadness.
A few more months passed. I was keen to see my Grandma again. Everything had been so sad before, and I wanted her to be full of merriment, as was her usual way. We arrived that morning and said our hellos. I rushed in and hugged her, followed by my mother, then my father carrying my little brother, asleep in his car seat. The smell was different again. It smelled like animals, sort of. Not quite like a cat; it was too subtle. In fact I didn’t think anyone else could smell it.
I used to run around a lot in the house – being a bungalow, there was a lot of floor space for me to brum my toy cars about and fly paper aeroplanes and the like. On my usual tearing up and down the corridor between the lounge and the guest bedrooms, I stopped stock still; though less out of shock than curiosity. About halfway down the hall, next to the radiator cover, there sat a rancid lettuce leaf. It seemed to be meticulously placed there, upon a page of newspaper. I picked it up and ran back down the hall to confront my Grandma with my curiosity.
“What’s this Grandma?” I asked, interrupting her conversation.
“It’s a lettuce leaf, dear”, she replied, turning her attention from photos of old family holidays.
“Why was it on the floor?” I continued.
“Because Harry couldn’t get to it anywhere else”, she smiled.
“Who’s Harry?” I demanded – I really was a lad of too many questions! By then, my mother and father were smiling too, as if they were all winding me up about something. This got me all het up, but soon enough, Grandma relented.
“Harry is my new pet tortoise”, she was beaming now, and my mother let out a little laugh, “he helps me with errands”. This absolutely blew my mind. Needless to say the questions didn’t stop there.
My parents left me with my Grandma that night. They were due to spend the weekend in North Wales, and although they felt bad imposing on Grandma, she insisted that she didn’t mind looking after the two of us for a couple of nights. I brushed my teeth and was put to bed, and the cot next door was where my brother, Andrew, slept. At about midnight, (give or take, I couldn’t yet tell the time), I decided to get up and try to find Harry. I searched every room in the house. I even managed to peek around Grandma’s bedroom door and scan the gloom briefly for any signs of reptilian life. No tortoise. I was disappointed. So much so, that I carried my sulk on to breakfast the next day.
“You don’t have a tortoise Grandma”, I insisted through a mouthful of Rice Krispies. She looked at me knowingly.
“He’s out at the moment”, she said. "He gets my paper for me, as I’m too frail to go to the shop". She motioned to a pile of papers by the back door, ready for the recycling. If I’d had the presence of mind I could have looked at that pile and determined she was fibbing. I didn’t yet understand dates, but I’d have seen that the most recent of these papers was dated July 23rd, a week prior to today. It all seemed pretty far-fetched anyway, so I continued on my line of enquiry.