by Laura Hankins
My grandfather is always sick. Most nights he crawls the house like a toddler, unable to rise to standing. I help him from the sitting room to the toilet, and back again. It has been like this for several weeks now, and we both know it is the end.
Some nights I light the fire. The first time I did this, cinders poured back down from where the smoke should be, spat out onto the carpet. Tiny fires reproducing themselves in the thick pile. My grandfather had watched me being enveloped by burning air. We had laughed afterwards. ‘Chimney fire.’
Grandfather hadn’t used the chimney for several years; it was blocked. I spent hours unclogging it with an old broom handle that I had taken from the shed. When I finished, my arms were covered in soot, up to my elbows. I smudged coal dust and burnt paper across my face to reach an itch.
Grandfather had slept through most of my fight with the chimney. By the time I had scrubbed my arms and stowed the broom handle he was laid out on the sofa, snoring softly. I switched on the lamp that stood beside him. The tassels of the lampshade cast shadows that looked like the anaemic needle teeth of deep-water sharks.
I roused Grandfather gently. He coughed as he opened his eyes, blinking at the sight of me.
‘What time is it?’
‘Bedtime,’ I whispered, though there was no one else in the house to hear me. ‘Come on.’
After I had put him to bed, I sat in front of the still fireplace. Paper makes great kindling. I knew this from the movies. Letters holding pent up emotions are sure to prove particularly potent fire starters. But I did not want to start the fire yet. I was tired.
I spend the mornings in the kitchen, scrambling eggs on the stove. The eggs are soft and only produce a mild taste, like a flavoured water or a palate cleanser. A gentle way of delivering protein to my grandfather. Today, the yellow lino is still sticky from last night’s washing up. I had sloshed foamy water from the sink onto my feet. My socks had soaked it up like roots, toes beginning to numb as the water cooled around them. I could have done with a fire then.
I reach for one of the laminated wood cabinets. Their sky-blue coating clashes with the sunburst floor and green distemper paint on the walls behind the splashboard. I fish out two glasses as the eggs sizzle quietly, then set them on the countertop. It’s worn, with deep gouges from years of knives used without chopping boards. I pour milk into each glass, watching the creamy residue spiralling up to lap at the top of each drink. Full fat, my grandfather insists.
The eggs are done. I split the scrambled mixture between two floral plates that were propped up on the sideboard. My grandmother had probably bought those, had probably been the one to put them out on display. She wanted everything on show. Grandfather has a tendency to pack his belongings away, plug crevices with his thoughts.
I have been reading through my grandfather’s old documents for several days. At first it was a way to feel closer to him, and to Grandma. There’s a black and white picture of her sat on a beach, smiling at the person taking the photo. ‘I think about you all the time’, her letter had said. I soon realised that I wanted to find out more, and quickly, before Grandfather died. Selfishly, I positioned myself at his bedside to extract family history. I hadn’t realised how much I’d wanted to know about my mother. Now, when it was almost too late, I wanted to learn everything at once.
I go to wake my grandfather. I have moved his mattress into the dining room, shoving the old oak table against the wall to make space.
‘Good morning,’ I say, voice raised to penetrate his subconscious. Some mornings I think he hears me but chooses to ignore, to slip back into the dream.
My grandfather’s arm twitches towards his head. He starts rubbing at his scalp as he rolls over and opens his eyes. His pyjamas are crisp and stark against his own crumpled skin. I bought them last week in an effort to make him more comfortable.
‘Morning,’ he mutters.
We sit in the living room eating our scrambled eggs. My grandfather lies back on the couch, positioning his plate on his chest and holding his knife and fork jauntily. His elbows stick out to each side as he scoops up another mouthful.
‘I found another photo of Mum,’ I said, trying to sound casual. Grandfather doesn’t look up.
‘It was taken in the garden here, right?’ I pull out the photo and unfold it so that I can hold it up in front of him. He glances at it briefly. Mum must have been about ten years old in the photo. She’s sat on a bicycle, trundling towards the camera.
‘Yes, that’s right.’ Grandfather thinks for a second, chewing steadily. ‘I remember when we bought her that bike, she loved it. Never wanted to take it out of the garden though.’
‘How old do you think she was here? There’s nothing written on the back of it and—’
‘I don’t know, I can’t remember.’ He looks tired. More tired than usual, at any rate. ‘It was a long time ago.’
I haven’t got many more letters to read through. I’ve been documenting them as I go. In a way, I am starting the inevitable clear-out in advance. Most unlike me. Every time I find a new photo or a letter of interest, I take it to my grandfather, try to garner extra information that will help me to appropriately catalogue it.
I have left Grandfather to his eggs. He eats much slower these days and doesn’t mind that I no longer wait for him to finish. In a way, I think he enjoys those solitary moments. Now, I reach for the final box of papers. It is a metal tin, black with red stripes passing parallel to the edges of the lid. I grasp it by the smooth handle on top and pop the clasp open.
To my surprise, the box is full of Christmas cards. There are gaudy, glittered pieces that coat my hands in fine dust, mixed in with more traditionalist cards printed with paintings of the nativity scene or an archangel. I pull the first few out of the box, dropping them onto the carpet. I pick one up that depicts a robin sat on a branch, the snow embellished with small sequins. I slide a thumb into the middle of the card and flip it open. I recognise my grandfather’s handwriting where he has dated the card in pencil. ‘1992.’ I recognise the sender’s handwriting, too.
Grandfather hadn’t wanted to be a burden to me as his illness progressed. For a long time, he had ignored his symptoms and continued to see me only on my occasional weekend visits. He collapsed for the first time last November, almost exactly two years after my grandmother had died. I remember picking him up from the hospital. He fell asleep in my car, his open mouth illuminated periodically as we passed below the lights on the motorway. That was when I decided it was my turn to care for him.
I always wondered whether Mum had left because of me, because I had in my own way been a burden to her. I suppose it was partly true. The older Christmas cards she had sent documented the early 1990s, when our nascent offshoot of the family had just begun to burgeon in a small corner of the south east of England. ‘He’s growing ever so big…’ ‘…loves the toy car you sent…’ ‘can’t wait to see you next week, remember we’re bringing the Christmas pudding.’ The cards are neatly stacked in chronological order, oldest at the top, as if to ease the reader in with anecdotes from an optimistic, simpler time.
As I get deeper through the stack, fragments of a developing story present themselves to me. ‘Dear Mum and Dad’, they all start. It sits oddly on the page, the fact that this is what Mum called them before they ended up becoming my parents as well. ‘I don’t feel right here, so looking forward to Christmas with you…’ ‘…you mustn’t worry though…’ ‘…see you soon, I’ve baked the Christmas cake.’ Nothing is explicit yet, but I can feel that something is wrong, like Mum had somehow imbued the ink with her anxiety. I pick up the next card. 1998. I suddenly become intensely aware of my own breathing. An illustration from a Flower Fairies book decorates the front of the card. It’s a blonde-haired boy in a dark green tunic, red leggings matching the red berries slung from his waist. The holly fairy. ‘Merry Christmas, Mum and Dad. Hope you’re well.’ That’s all it says.
1998. That was the year Mum left. There are no anecdotes in this card, no warmth or anticipation. The rest of the card is blank except for Grandfather’s pencilled date and what seems to be Mum’s usual signoff.
‘All my love, Marla.’
I shove the cards back into the box like I’m hiding a mess or an embarrassing text. I close the clasp and pick the box up by the handle. I need to speak to my grandfather.
He’s asleep on the couch, where I left him. The air seems a bit thicker than usual as I step into the living room. I still have the Christmas card from 1998 in one hand. The corner digs into my thumb.
He’s fallen asleep. I walk across the rug, picking up the plate he’s left next to him on the floor. The eggs are half-finished and have acquired a slimy sheen. The plate is no longer warm to the touch, and the cutlery is tacky.
‘Grandad, I need to ask you something.’
I reach out to shake him. He seems to move limply as I do so. I move my hand up from his shoulder to his face. His skin is cold.
Mum kept sending them Christmas cards. Every year. The same message in each one, with just slight variations. ‘Merry Christmas, Mum and Dad. Hope you’re well.’ They knew where she was, the whole time. And they never told me, and she kept writing to them, and she never contacted me. She didn’t even ask after me. I sit down on the floor of the living room, keeping my grandfather’s body in the corner of my eye as I open the box again. I tip out the cards onto the carpet and sift through to the ones that were buried right at the bottom. I open the most recent card. It’s from last Christmas. I had been living here when it had come through the letter box. I imagine it dropping on the mat like a stone.
I light the fire again and stand in front of it, alone. I stare at it for a while, vaguely aware of the warmth on my skin. I reach down and grab a handful of Christmas cards from the floor. I hold them for a moment, crumpling them against the skin of my palm. Then I toss them into the fire. Glitter rises and catches light, burning in an instant. The paper takes longer to disappear.
LAURA HANKINS is a DPhil student in Chromosome and Developmental Biology at Merton College, Oxford. She can usually be found in dark rooms playing with microscopes.
Art by Izzy Fergusson