Northwords Now

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by Christine Grant

The old lady was quiet today, gazing out the kitchen window. She smelt faintly of fresh urine. Several packs of incontinence pads sat in the back porch beside the potatoes and the tumbler drier. They hadn't been there the last time Neil was home.

The machair, the flat, sandy ground leading down to the sea was grey-green, under a cloudy sky. The ferry had docked after two days of gales, and Neil’s mother had driven out to stock up on food for the New Year’s dinner. He was minding his grandmother; someone had to be with her all the time now.

Granny was prone to wandering. Most of the time, she tottered around the house, in and out of rooms, as if she was looking for something she had lost, but now and then she managed to slip out and walk down the road to the house where she lived most of her life. After she moved in with them, Neil’s parents refurbished Granny’s house for holiday lets. From time to time, Granny shuffled into the living room of the old house, spaideil now with a leather sofa and a wood-burning stove, and startled the tourists. Sometimes, she went further, walking down the single- track road in her slippers and cardigan. There wasn’t much traffic, but the young guys liked to step on the accelerator when they reached the straight stretch near the house.

Granny’s mind was unravelling like a piece of knitting. It was hard to say when it started. A few years ago, she became quieter, forgetting arrangements, surprised to find that Sunday was Monday or Saturday Sunday. She stopped cooking, and bought only tins of soup and packs of biscuits and cakes. Neil’s mother began bringing in fresh food and cooked meals.

After finishing his degree in Edinburgh, Neil had gone back to the island, helping his father on the croft, earning a bit of money doing jobs here and there, while he tried to find job. He was eventually offered work with a marketing firm in London. The day before he left, he walked down to Granny's house to say good-bye. A painting she had started months ago sat half-finished on an easel in the back porch, and a thin layer of dust covered the surfaces in the living room.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“I'm off to London. Remember?”

She shook her head and gazed through the window with eyes that were a shade darker than the thin blue line of sea. “Why?”

“I've got a job. A good one.”

She grasped his hand. “Can you not work here?” Her rings dug into his palm and her skin felt dry and papery.

“There's no jobs here. You know that.” The opportunities were all away. If you got an education, you had to leave. Neil’s Uncle Donny, had become an engineer and travelled the world, living in Africa and the far east. He'd always planned to come back when he retired, and was working in England, a few months away from retirement, when he died of a heart attack. He had come back alright, to the cemetery on the machair.

She let Neil go, pushing his hand away with a slight smile. He rubbed his fingers where the rings had gouged into them and bent to kiss her lightly on the cheek before setting off, the future ahead of him.

The graduate wage which had looked so good on paper, barely covered a room in a shared house in Islington. Neil’s mother phoned weekly, and unburdened her worries about her Granny. At first, she took over weekly chores like shopping and washing and hoovering, but eventually she went in every day to help Granny with the cooking and washing up. On Sunday morning, Neil’s brother Angus popped in to remind her that it was Didomhnaich and time for Mass.

On his first visit home, Neil walked down to Granny’s house, eager to see her again. She was sitting by the window, looking out towards the sea. The whites of her eyes were parchment yellow, the pupils filmed and blotchy like a stagnant pool. He made tea and conversation for the two of them. Granny, nodded occasionally, but said almost nothing. He wondered if she was even listening. After half an hour, she seemed tired, and he got up to leave. She clutched him so tightly that he felt her nails through his sweatshirt. Things weren't what they had been, and she knew.

As a child, Neil had always been in and out of the old croft house down the road where his grandmother lived. She sang while she baked oatcakes, or scrubbed potatoes, or tried to capture the changing landscape and weather in thick smears of paint, and he learnt the tunes too. Her own grandfather had composed some of these songs when he was away at sea.

Neil was a teenager before he saw his grandmother’s wedding photo. She brought it out from the back of the sideboard where it was wrapped in tissue paper, and when he asked why she didn’t put it up, she said that it made her feel too sad. They sat together on the sofa looking at the serious young woman with dark hair curling over her shoulders. She stood beside a lanky young man who would never age in photos or memories; he had died in a fishing accident, leaving four young children. Neil felt emotion blocking his throat and stinging his eyes. He asked his grandmother how she had managed to keep going, and she said, “Cha robh doigh eile ann.” There was no other way.

She taught Neil his name, and his place in the long chain of people stretching back through the generations. He was Niall 'ic Iain 'ic Alasdair 'ic Dhòmhnaill: Neil, son of John, son of Alastair, son of Donald. She knew which seaweeds and lichens could be used for dyes and jellies as well as the use of plants for healing.

During his first visit back from London, he tried to hold onto every moment with his grandmother, and store it up for the time when he would be rattling to work on a crowded train full of strangers. However, Granny seemed fuzzy at the edges, as if she was travelling away and becoming smaller and more blurred as she disappeared into the distance.

Five months passed, almost six, before Neil returned for Christmas and New Year. He was shocked by the change in his grandmother although the others seemed to have accepted her reduced capacities and adjusted. Conversations were difficult, like channel hopping on the television. Sometimes she latched on to a word like London and began a long, rambling anecdote which might have something to do with a distant cousin who had gone to live in London, mixed up with a story about ordering a dress from a company in London when she was very young. Complete memories were now only broken mixed-up shards.

Granny stayed with them so that she wouldn't be on her own at New Year. She helped with the dishes, wiping one or two dry and then wandering into other rooms, leaving a cup on the piano and a tea towel neatly folded over the back of the sofa. In the original plan, Granny was going to return to her own house after a few day’s rest, but she never went back. It was clear that she was no longer able to cope.

After Neil returned to London, his mother took Granny to the doctor for a problem with her eyes. They came back with a bottle of eye ointment and confirmation of what they already knew: a diagnosis of dementia.

Neil’s grandmother was dozing now with her mouth open and her cheek resting against the winged armchair in the kitchen. He wished that he had asked her more while her mind was still intact. The essence of her was still there, locked deep down. However, she was increasingly unable to interact with the world, as if she was looking out through a grimy window which became dirtier all the time.

Gulls wheeled over the machair. The clouds moved slowly in the lull between the gales. The ragged edges of one seemed to form into the crinkled face of an old lady.

The kitchen door opened, and Neil’s mother bustled in, bringing bags and a draught of cold air, rousing him out of the dreamy, quiet state he had reached sitting beside his grandmother.

An do thill thu, a Dhòmhnaill?” His grandmother woke up and looked at him. She thought that he was her brother, his long-dead uncle Donny, back from his travels across the world.

“'S mise Niall,” Neil affirmed his identity, letting her lean on his arm as she steadied herself.

’S fada bhon a chunnaic sinn thu, a Dhòmhnaill?” Granny shakily pushed herself up from the chair and reached out a hand to greet her long-lost brother.

Seo Niall, am mac agam.” Neil’s mother shouted that he was her son even though she was only on the other side of the kitchen table. She opened a bag of pasta, shook the contents into a glass container, and dropped her voice to ask how Granny had been. “Ciamar a bha i?”

Ceart gu leor,” Neil said. “Bha i direach a' cadail.” She had been peacefully sleeping most of the time.

He helped his mother put away the shopping, while she kept up a non-stop commentary on the people she had met in the supermarket. She had bumped into Alec Donn’s mother. Alec Donn worked on the fishing and had a reputation as a roving bachelor. He'd been pinned down by an Irish girl who was working for the environment agency, and trying to learn Gaelic. Nice-looking girl, red hair. Alec's mother was delighted.  The wedding was set for the following summer, and they were going to live in a caravan while they built a house on the croft.  

Behind the words, Neil heard what his mother didn't say. She would like one of her younger sons to settle down, so that she, too, could go to the local shop and announce an engagement. It was unlikely. Angus was almost thirty, still living at home and showing no sign of acquiring a girlfriend, whilst Neil was in London, trying out women she would never meet.

Neil stowed away a packet of crackers and looked around. The wing chair was empty. He found his grandmother in the hall cupboard, arranging cans of food beside the shoes. That was where she had kept the tinned food in her own house. He led her back to the kitchen, glad that his mother had moved onto another topic, a friend who needed to go to the mainland for an operation.

A smile faded on Granny’s lips as she settled back against the side of the chair and closed her eyes. She was weary. Neil looked out the window to the fence which sheltered the potato patch. Beyond were the fields, exposed to the relentless wind from the sea.

He thought about all the people who had struggled to cultivate this piece of land on the edge of the sea so that the cycle would go on, each generation subtly different from the last. They had laboured so that he would have the choice to leave, jostle his way to work through crowded city streets, sit in front of a screen breathing recycled office air and eat microwave-ready meals off plastic trays.

It was all unravelling, and he was the weak link in the chain.


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