A little piece of fiction, which I rarely ever tend to write, but it was created for a short story competition. No, it didn’t win. But I like the piece personally. It gathers up pieces of my experiences of when my grandpa was ‘just’ still here. I hope you enjoy it. If you would like to republish it, please get in touch.
The Faraway Man
He was wanting to talk about that woman again. I looked at him as he sat there slightly uncomfortable in his chair. He was unusually awkward today. I was taking in the moment. God only knew how quickly they could vanish. There was a pink light stretching across his long body and this glow from the afternoon sun softened his face. There was so much regret trickling through the back of my brain where it best lay hidden.
“I really need to let her know how I feel about her. If I don’t she’ll end up with him and I will be the one left spending my life always wondering,” he said.
Those blue eyes were looking at me. They were so old now. They must have witnessed so many hours of history, most of which was now forgotten. From those eyes you could tell exactly when he was deadly serious, when he was humouring you or when his temper was likely to emerge. Little pools of truth, they softened a face which was angular, weather-beaten and so familiar to me. That face had been with me all of my life.
I began the journey with him. “Do you think…”
“I know that she has been talking to her friends about possibly marrying that dog. I can’t just do nothing, can I?”
And here I was expected to give an answer so I gave the one I always gave. It wasn’t because I was gutless. It was because, at this stage, it was easier to just tell it like it was and I could manage that. He had taught me that very quality.
“From what you’ve told me, I really believe that maybe there is someone else who can love you more,” I began. “It seems like she just doesn’t see how wonderful you are. But I’m sure that someone special is just around the corner. Like Alice, for example.” I was stumbling. It was obvious and he saw it.
He looked at me deeply. Being so much younger than he, I was aware that my transparency surrounded me like an ill-fitting coat. But I was thinking of his wife despite the fact that she was long gone and now fodder for the earth. What a wonderful team they had made.
The room filled up with silence. He was back in his head, thinking about how he could win this woman’s heart. I could tell by the slightly upturned ends of his mouth; quiet satisfaction knowing a plan was being hatched. He was bothered by it. I was bothered by it. He can’t remember that he wouldn’t ever be with her with this other one who threatened ‘to marry the dog. Instead he would be with another who would spend her life beside him for just over 60 years. Those memories, for him, were now difficult to find and even worse to navigate.
I sat there. I allowed the peacefulness to stay there a moment later. Part of being there for someone is knowing when to allow the pregnant pauses. Silence between people who love each other doesn’t ever wrench or squeeze. It sits there, like a meditation, where people take a beat and relax further into the strange spiritual thing that connects them. I knew not to fidget or look at my watch. With my mouth closed, I went with the situation. Calmness and serene presence was best for this one. I didn’t want to upset him, now or ever again.
He went to drink his tea. I knew it would be cold.
“Let me get a fresh pot,” I said as I took the cup from his hand. It was warm and steady. He looked up at me. I smiled and he smiled back.
“Coffee,” he said. “I would like some coffee?”
“Oh? Well, there’s a change. I’ll get you one.”
He was still smiling at me. “Thank you,” he said. You really are a beautiful girl.”
Was he viewing me, as I actually was, or was his mind somewhere else? I lent to him and kissed his cheek. He was slightly taken aback. I could have been Liz Taylor for all he knew. I just wanted him to know I was his grand-daughter. It wasn’t that much to ask after all this time was it?
“What was that for?” he asked, slightly shocked, or miffed, or something.
“Because I think you are the best,” was all that came out. “That’s why.”
I grabbed the teapot, jingled the cups and saucers onto the tray and wobbled my way out of room. Don’t fucking cry. Don’t fucking cry. Just get to the next part.
I wasn’t going to look back at him. I didn’t want to know his expression at that stage and I didn’t need a clanging sense of alienation coming at me because he didn’t understand what I meant.
Our relationship had not always been easy but for me this man represented everything a good man should; compassion, support, strength and fierce loyalty. For that I loved him deeply and held a type of respect that had been lost in the fast paced world of ‘Send me a text’ or ‘Are you on Facebook?’
This was old school. This was deep like a wound that would scar and create a mark that could be talked about at a dinner party. Many people, throughout the time, have asked me about him. They saw the love. They told me “Wow, such a beautiful relationship the two of you have.” Had, I thought to myself. Gradually it had begun to fall apart and, piece by piece, it had become unrecognisable.
A kettle whistle bought me back. Gathering the milk, putting the coffee in the mug, picking up the spoons, all taking me step by step back to him. I was reminding myself to stay right in the moment because that was where I could find him. I mean, the real him. You had to go there with him otherwise all was lost. He demanded it. In moments, if you could stop time and be there, you would learn and understand more about the man. There were angles to him that could only been seen at certain times. He had always had that quality and it wasn’t lost from him now.
He had told me once, years ago now, that he and his brothers and sisters had everything except money and decent food. A stoic mother had been the oil on the water when things were well-stretched. A dedicated father acted as the strong glue. He passed on this essence to his own family and it was the overwhelming thing that set up apart. He’d given the lot of use an emotional spine.
The man had once had a wonderful brain and a deep, overflowing heart. Being immersed in moments with him, when I was smaller and more anxious, was like swimming in a peaceful stream. He was ever present and ever loving, surrounding you always in love and possibility; just like a walking human tonic. No longer though. It was time for me to reconcile my misery that he was lost to me. He was someone else made up of all the parts, mixed around, dictated by his life’s history.
There was a tittering when I came back into the room. He was muttering to himself. I wasn’t sure whether the tide had turned on his emotions. Often you could find yourself dealing with his temper, sparked from nothing but suddenly as strong as a tsunami. I put down the tray, began to pour the coffee and looked up to find him staring at me.
“Hello there, dearest,” he said.
My heart sank. We had spoken long ago about things important to him. He made sure I knew his mind on all matters because I was the trusted, ‘special’ one. He continually worried about those close to him and often mused about how all of them would cope once he died. I, like the others, reminded him of how silly he was being; that it was a far off event needing no consideration in the circumstances.
But he made me promise him that if he ever got to a stage where he was incapacitated or unable to lead a normal life, that it would be I tasked with chore of relieving his misery. So I promised him. I had uttered the promise because he had worn me down. I had tired of the incessant nagging from him. I would never fulfil it. Ever. I was happy to let him down through my own weakness that he would never know.
“Dearest?” he pushed me again.
I looked at him. I wanted to grab him and never let go. I wanted to bury my face deep into the snug of his neck and stay there as he fiddled his way through a crossword. I wanted to go back to a time where everything was functioning and normal, where when he said something he actually meant it. I wanted to be six and walking on that beach with him; feet in soft sand, little hand in big hand.
“Sorry, Grandpa,” I said to him. Then I saw his face. I was lost to him and him to me.
“I beg your pardon?” He was looking at me in that confused way and I knew we had reset. We were back to nowhere. All gone and lost in a matter of minutes, I allowed the courtesy of moving us along just by smiling.
“Here is your coffee,” and I handed him the mug. He looked down into the rim, taking a moment to understand what it actually was. Slowly he raised his head and looked directly at me.
“Are you here to clean the room?” Genuinely puzzled, he had that tired look about him and I knew that soon he would be sleeping and I would leave and not become a memory.
“No, no, I just bought you some coffee because you said you wanted a hot drink.” There was another of the pauses. I sat there, waiting.
“Dear, I wonder if you could arrange something for me?” he asked and got up and walked to the table at his bedside. Opening the drawer, I could see a bundle of notes, crisp and stacked neatly, which he gathered up, shuffled within his hands and then, walking back to sit down, gave them to me.
He could have been handing his cash to anyone. I still hadn’t figured out how on earth he got it here? Yes, he had plenty of money stashed away but who facilitated the delivery of his amount of cash here, to the home? This was the fifth time we had gone through this dance.
“Let me guess. You want me to go any buy you an engagement ring,” I said.
It was like the spring broke through from his face.
“Yes,’ he whispered, “and you know the type that would suit, don’t you?”
“Grandpa, leave it to me. I’ll get something beautiful,” and I put the money into my bag. I looked at him. Spring had been replaced with autumn and soon he would be drawn into the hibernation of a lifeless place when his winter arrived in the next few minutes.
He moved towards the bed and crashed onto the side of it pushing the air from his lungs. Like a baby, he needed sleep and he needed to get to that place immediately. By the time I’d got to the door to call to a nurse, he’d swung his legs around and was up on the bed. I slipped off his shoes as he slipped into sleep.
The nurse came in, closed the curtains and pulled a blanket around him. The old man became a quiet temple. His muddle of thoughts was self-contained in the comfort of the warmth around him; blanket up to his chin and soft gray hair snuggled onto the pillow.
I wondered how many times more I would replace the money to the draw only to return another day to play out the same desperate conversation and have it handed back to me.
I lent and kissed his cheek. My thoughts stop right there. I didn’t need to think any further than that. My grandfather slept. Wherever he was now I knew he was safe. It was I heading out into that unknown place, not knowing when the inevitable would happen. That is all. I still knew where to find him even if he couldn’t find me. It didn’t need to be more complicated than that.