It was the loudest noise I’d ever heard.
If Uncle John hadn’t kicked his ball away, at that very moment, I would have been right outside the shop with the others. I was running after the football. I reached it, picked it up, and, just as I did, there it was behind me. Boom!
And straightaway, we were in darkness, apart from the streetlights outside.
The ball was brown leather, with white shoelaces holding it together. It was in my hands when I heard the bang. I can still picture it there. Sometimes, I even feel myself holding onto it, especially when something makes me jump.
What about you, Grandma? Did you see it as well?
Grandma can’t hear too well these days, kids. And she forgets things. On good days, she remembers who we are. Sometimes, anyway.
Is this a good day?
Yes, Poppet, today’s a good day for grandma. And that means it’s a good day for all of us.
Mummy says you forget things too, Grandad.
When you get to my age, you’ll be just the same, I’m afraid. Your brain goes hard, or something. I read about it once. Ossification, I think it’s called. Unless that’s bones. Perhaps that’s bones.
Once you’re old like me, you’ve seen so much, and learned so much, that everything piles up in your brain and you can’t find things in there anymore. It’s like dust on the piano. Every Friday morning, we get up early and wipe it all off to make everything look respectable before you two come for tea. By the time you get here after school, it’s all come back again. Just imagine how much there would be if we never dusted for all of our lives. It would be that high. As big as you. We wouldn’t be able to open the front door.
Did grandma see what happened, then?
Did you see it, Flo? You remember. The explosion. Down the Arcade?
Oh, she’s asleep. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. She always told me there was nothing to see. But she was very little.
Uncle John said he saw the windows shaking, and lots of smoke coming out of them. I didn’t see any smoke myself. I think he made it up. He always got so cross when I told him he was a dirty fibber. I learned afterwards that sometimes people just see things in different ways. I expect it depends on your brain. Don’t you go around calling people names like that, mind. You’ll get me in trouble if your mum finds out.
Was he your uncle?
He was grandma’s brother. He died a long time ago.
Was he as old as you?
No, he was just a young man. Do you see that picture over there on the piano, next to your mum and dad’s wedding photo? That’s him, wearing his uniform. He got blown up in Africa during the War.
Best not mention to grandma that I told you that. She used to cry whenever she thought about him. Until she got ill. Now she thinks he’s alive again.
Like a ghost?
No, not really. She’s sort of, well, forgotten that he died.
Can’t you tell her?
I could, but I won’t. She’s much happier, thinking he’s there. Sometimes she sets a place for him at teatime. I have to distract her and clear it away again. It’s kinder that way. Sometimes you have to be just the littlest bit untruthful to spare people’s feelings. You’ll understand when you’re older.
Now, where was I? You two are the very devil for distracting me with questions. Oh yes, I remember.
It was in the summer-time. A hot evening.
Uncle John and I were kicking the ball around after tea, just like we always did. Grandma came out and said we were to go over and fetch their dad. Your great-grandad. He worked in London and came back by train every day. Great-grandma used to send them to meet him when she said they were getting too inquisitive.
What does inquisitive mean?
Asking too many questions, just like you two! Don’t look like that, I’m just teasing. You’re my favourite audience. Nobody else wants to listen to my old stories.
We all lived just around the corner from the station. I ran indoors to tell my mum I was going and off we went.
Did she let you?
Oh yes, we didn’t need to worry about getting run over in those days. Not on our road, anyway. And you could hear them coming long before they arrived. We wrote their numbers down in our little notebooks. John used to sulk because I had more than him. He had more train numbers than I did, though. He got cross about that too, but only because it never bothered me and he thought it should.
Was he always cross?
No. Only sometimes. He grew out of it.
When we were a few years older, he couldn’t understand why I still wanted to be friends with his little sister. If you love somebody, and they love you back, you shouldn’t take any notice of what anybody else thinks. Even brothers and sisters.
Especially brothers and sisters.
He was happy when we got married, though. Almost as much as we were. My dad used to say that family and friendship are the most important things anybody can have. I always thought it was the soppiest thing I ever heard. Now I think he was probably right. Some ideas you have to grow into. You’ll find that out for yourselves later, one day.
I’ve known grandma since the day after she was born. I think we’ve only argued twice, and it’s a long time since I forgot what those were about. I don’t expect we’ll start now. I’m nearly three years older than her, so I can’t recall the first time we saw each other. It’s a shame, but goes to show our brains don’t always recognise the most important things while they’re going on. She and her brother lived at number eighteen and we were at twenty-four. Our parents knew each other, and we were in and out of one another's houses like they were our own.
I’m wandering again, aren’t I?
Just there, at the top of our road, was good for watching cars. Most of them still needed to slow down to get up the hill. That made it easier for us to get their numbers. Plus, we could lean over the bridge and see the trains going by. There was one which came through at four minutes to teatime. It was twelve carriages long, usually, and mostly empty as Hastings was nearly at the end of the line. We ran over to see it, breathe in as much smoke and steam as our bodies would hold, and then go inside to eat. Afterwards, we played out again until it got dark. Unless it was raining, or we got sent to the station for great-grandad.
Most days, he just walked us straight back, but sometimes he’d pretend to forget the way and march us off in the opposite direction. Your grandma always told him we were going in the wrong direction, but he just said we’d try a different route tonight. She was only four and always worked herself into a right tizzy about it. He usually carried her on his shoulders. I’m surprised he didn’t go deaf from all her hollering. Those lungs don’t work so well now, but she knew how to use them in those days.
“Oh, wherever can we be?” he asked, leading us through town, down to the beach and along the prom to his favourite ice cream parlour. Then he’d stop and ask if we’d like one. The question always surprised her, no matter how often she heard it. Her eyes used to light up like a pair of candles reflected in water. Sometimes, on a very, very good day, they still do. Seeing it now sends me right back to when we were your age.
Then she’d calm down again. We’d all eat them quietly as great-grandad suddenly remembered the way home again. Once, he gave her a piggy-back while she was eating, and most of her ice cream ran down onto his head. He never did that again.
He always enjoyed taking us through the Arcade on our way back. Even then, it was old-fashioned, like discovering a museum in the middle of town. The shops were closed, of course, but we loved looking in their windows. It smelled of fish, just like it does now. I think they still use the same slabs for the morning’s catch. I doubt marble wears out easily.
Great-grandad put grandma down when we reached the corner, just where the butcher’s used to be. That was when Uncle John bounced the ball. I don’t think he meant to kick it. Perhaps it just caught his foot. Great-grandad shouted something. We knew he wasn’t pleased. I was already in front, so I ran to fetch it. And, hopefully, stop it hitting anyone.
That was when I heard the bang and all the lights went out.
Great-grandad picked grandma up with one arm and grabbed Uncle John with the other. I don’t think he even checked they were still alive until we got out. We ran onto Queens Road, then turned and peered back into the darkness. People appeared from all over, waiting for the next show to start at the cinema, probably, and the fire brigade arrived. There was nothing to put out, so they went away again and so did we.
When they found the inventor, he was in a bad way. We read about it in the newspaper afterwards. Something short-circuited the electrics and blew up half of his equipment. It put more than a thousand volts through him and sent him flying to the other end of his workshop. He was badly burned, but still alive. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the owner decided he’d had enough of fire and explosions and threw him out.
Where did he go?
I think he moved to London and carried on inventing there.
Did you ever meet him, Grandad?
No. We found out later he lived in a flat on our road, at number twenty-one, right between where grandma and I grew up. We didn’t know who he was, what he was doing, or why it mattered. I don’t think any of us had even seen a talking picture at the cinema yet, although they had been out for a couple of years. The idea we might watch them in our front rooms was like saying one day somebody would walk on the moon one day.
We saw him a few years later, though, when they put the plaque up in the Arcade. Great-grandad shook his hand and called to us to come over, but we were too shy, I guess.
“Television was first demonstrated by John Logie Baird from experiments started here in 1924”, the plaque says. I’ll take you to see it tomorrow if you like. And buy you some old-fashioned sweets. Or an ice cream, if the weather’s fine.
Yes, please! Can we watch a video now?
I suppose so. Now, if only I could remember where I put the remote control.
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Loved this story, Mike. It has an easy flow to it, and I guess we can all relate to the telling of tales by our parents and grandparents when we were little.
Thanks, Stephen, very much appreciated.