Northwords Now

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by Tristan ap Rheinnalt

That was the night Granny came back. I remember that it was calm and muggy, unusually warm for autumn, and a thick layer of murky cloud covered the sky, cutting us off from any trace of moonlight or starlight. We were surrounded by utter darkness except for a solitary light coming from our nearest neighbour’s home, more than a mile away along the rough track that crossed the moor.  

I didn’t see her arrive. I just became gradually aware that she was there, sitting in her usual place in the corner of the kitchen as though she’d never gone away. She was wearing an old blue coat and one of those flowery headscarves.

I find it hard to believe that we carried on talking, but that’s what happened. What else were we to do?

“I remember every last detail,” said Mother, picking up where she had left off, though now her voice swayed and staggered, and her face was as white as the sea-foam. “As soon as we reached the shore that day we started running around on the sand like mad things, Peggy and Anna and me. Your grandmother and Auntie Johanna sat on a flat rock and talked in quiet voices, thinking we were oblivious.”

She glanced briefly in Granny’s direction. “I knew, of course. Because the war was over, I knew that Auntie Johanna would take Peggy and Anna with her to America and then there would just be two of us left. What I didn’t know is that the tickets were already booked and my aunt had come to say goodbye.”

Mother took a handkerchief from somewhere to dab her eyes. “That was the last time I saw any of them. After we got news of the train crash, I couldn’t stop thinking about them and how far they were from home when they died. What Peggy and Anna could have done with their lives, what they would have experienced, if it hadn’t been for the accident...”

Sneaking a glance in Granny’s direction, I thought I saw a tear roll down her cheek. Her eyes, though, were hidden by the firelight reflecting off the jam-jar lenses of her spectacles. For the first time, I noticed her hands, like two bundles of dried heather lying across each other in her lap.

“I still see them in my mind’s eye as young girls,” continued Mother. “I can hardly believe that it’s twenty-five years to the day since we lost them. A quarter of a century! Where did the time go?”

She lowered her voice, as though to address me and Kirsty alone. “It must have been even worse for your granny, losing her only sister and her nieces so soon after her husband. I didn’t understand at first, though: I was young and I couldn’t see beyond my own pain. She used to say that she would always be there to remember them with me.”

She came to an abrupt halt then. I could read the thought as clearly as if she had said it: Is this why she’s come back?

There was silence except for the hissing of the peats on the fire, our only source of heat, and the ticking of the old clock, which seemed to grow louder with every second that passed. I saw that the others, like me, were looking sidelong at Granny. I suppose we were all wondering whether she would say something.

Suddenly Kirsty piped up. “It’s Colin,” she said, as though someone had just asked her what was worrying her. “He wants to take me away camping for the weekend. Just me and him.”

What on earth made her choose that as a subject, I wondered. She must have blurted out the first thing that came into her head, just because she couldn’t endure the dragging silence any longer. But there was a whole mind-map of topics to avoid in Granny’s presence, and while going camping with a boyfriend was not right at the heart of the map, where explicit references to sex and drunkenness might belong, it wasn’t too close to the edge either. Kirsty must have realised this because her hand went up and covered her mouth, and she turned bright red. I saw that she was shaking.

We were all used to the way Granny’s face would change at the merest hint of impropriety: how her mouth would become a flat hard line like a crack in rock. Not this time, though. Although I didn’t have the courage to look at her directly, I thought I detected a smile on her face.

Mother was at a loss. “I don’t know,” she said. “You’re only sixteen. And I know Colin is a good boy and everything, but still...”

For the first time, she was looking straight at Granny, and she must have seen something in her expression because her tone of voice changed. “I suppose that if you promise to behave yourself, you could go for a night or two. That’s as long as the weather doesn’t change, of course.”

Kirsty sat there gawping like a fish. I think she’d automatically assumed the answer would be no, even though Mother was less strict than Granny had been. Kirsty had probably never even stopped to think about whether, if she were free to decide for herself, she would choose to go.

Then Granny spoke. Her voice was thin and insubstantial, and her pronouncement didn’t seem to be directed at anyone in particular. “Make the most of the time you have.”

Was she talking about Kirsty’s camping weekend, or something else? I looked to Mother for guidance, but her expression revealed nothing.

Granny cleared her throat awkwardly, as though it was an effort to speak. “You don’t know what’s waiting for you out there. You can’t even begin to imagine.”

With that she looked long and hard at the fire in the hearth before rising to her feet, clutching at the arms of the chair for support as she did so. Slowly and painfully she shuffled towards the door, one small step at a time. When she reached the threshold, she hesitated and stood still for a moment. Then, without turning around, she opened the door and went out into the night.

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