“Straight back” she says while she clumsily marks the door jam above my head with her pencil stub. “There, you’re taller than your dad was at your age”. I turn and see the gouges and marks in the glossed white frame. The name ‘Derek age 9’ is just readable as well as Billy and Michael at various ages. Dad is a good inch below my mark and I imagine him standing here as proudly as me, maybe on tip-toes. I take a seat on the old kitchen chair and am studying the light gleaming through the net curtains when I’m drawn to the excited chirping next to me.
“Pretty Boy, hello Billy” coos gran, puckering her lips. Billy is devouring some millet, husks are all over the floor. He chirrups and pecks at his favourite mirror.
“Wasn’t Billy green Gran, why has he turned blue?”
“Old Billy passed away duck, and this is little Billy”.
“Oh, why d’you call them both Billy?”
“All budgies are called Billy duck”.
I watch my gran use her stick to reverse back into her comfy chair, she is bent over quite badly these days but is still able to shuffle around the little Victorian terraced house on her own. The table contains the remains of her lunch, a plate of little bones and potatoes lay finished besides an empty glass of Guinness, some creamy froth still clings to the sides.
“Your father will be here soon, then you can ‘ave lunch, I’ve made a pie” she nods towards the galley kitchen. A sweet and sickly smell permeates the room, I don’t know what it is. Usually gran’s house smells of lavender, mothballs or musky damp like old drawers… but this is new.
“Do you want a cup of tea duck? The pots still warm”
“Yes please Granny”.
She opens the kitchen door and there’s a skinned rabbit on the draining board and that strange odor is stronger now. I look at the black and white photo on the wall, its my grandad Fred and my gran wearing a floppy hat sitting on a blanket together, they look so young and happy, Fred is wearing a double breasted suit, they’re having a picnic somewhere nearby at the cliffs in Pegwell. I recognise it.
“That was our honeymoon duck” says gran noticing my interest. “We got married in the autumn of ‘38. We had a year together before your Grandad … got called up.”. She pours me some tea through a strainer into a dainty blue china cup while she hums a tune.
I like the way granny drinks her tea because she ritually tips it into the saucer to cool it down, then slurps it. I’m not allowed to slurp it at home but granny positively encourages it here. It definitely tastes better slurped from a saucer in my opinion.
“How many sugars poppet?”
“Two please”. And she has sugar lumps, which as we all know are just sweets in disguise. I like to put one in the tea, and suck the other until it dissolves on my tongue.
“Got called up where?”
“You know to fight Herr Hitler”
“Granny why are all budgies called Billy?”. But she doesn’t answer, she just looks at me with devoted eyes through her wonky national health glasses.
“Can you get me the bottle opener duck, its in the dresser drawer”. Granny pulls a 'kleenex' out from her sleeve and dabs her teary eye, then nips out to the loo. From behind I see her shoulders are heaving up and down; I think she’s secretly sobbing.
Knowing that there’s usually some hidden sweets in there I jump down from the chair and wrench it open, it is full of all kinds of nick nacks, cotton reels, screwdrivers and sure enough a bag of cough candy. I soon find her bottle opener with the wooden handle in the shape of a Dutch clog and some other strange things that I don’t recognise. I am lining up some trinkets on the dresser top when I hear a key in the front door and it swings open letting in the traffic noise from the street. Granny trudges back into the dining room and is met by my dad who takes off his wellington boots and gives her a hug.
“Hallo Mum, sorry about the smell, we had a big load of cod come in last night”.
“Oh I don’t mind son, your pie is ready, I made it for you, are you hungry boy?”. She wipes her hands on her apron.
Dad ruffles my hair. He rubs his hands together and goes through the door into the kitchen.
“Lovely, I’ll just wash up” he calls back. Granny follows him into the galley kitchen and I overhear them talking about the fish shop. Granny lays the table with the matching blue china then struggles over to the dresser. “Duck. Can I ask you something?”.
“I was just wondering, do you love me?”.
She catches my eye and smiles a crooked smile. Her crimson lipstick has smudged onto her single top tooth and whiskers; she has that familiar smell of milk stout. Maybe it was her sloppy kisses that gave me a taste for it. She often used to let me have a sip out of the bottle.
“Why do you ask?” I squeak.
She doesn’t answer but just leans in and hugs me.
I was always gently encouraged, with the threat of violence, to be truthful at all times, especially with my family. I feel like I have her heart in my young hands, and it is a huge responsibility to make an old women feel good about herself, after all she has given me so much, for so little in return.
She used to make me gooseberry crumble, and blancmange occasionally. My mum wouldn’t let me eat the blancmange last week because she said it had mould on it. It looked alright to me, I preferred it to her gritty cockles. She has a hairy gooseberry bush outside in her back garden, next to a lean-to shed that I was only brave enough to go inside on one occasion due to the cat piss, wasps and spiders.
I glance into the front room. I can see that old faithful sweet tin on the sideboard, next to the silver jubilee crockery and what she calls the wireless and what everybody else calls ‘the radio’. She will let me have a rummage in that tin for the trip home. My heart always sinks slightly if she only has ‘Spangles’ left. Its not my first choice, but I’m sure you’ll appreciate, this isn’t the Ritz and I’m not the only grandchild. I’ll take whatever I can get.
We often used to enjoy ‘Little House on the Prairie’ together, or even ‘The Sullivans’ on the old black and white set. Her legs were a twisted mess of purple bruises and bulbous veins all held together with loose, thick stockings. She’d have her slippered feet up on the pouffe slurping her tea out of the saucer and sucking ‘Maltesers’ while we watched. She was an expert at electrics because when the TV was on the blink, she knew exactly where to thump it. Though, on one occasion, when the set was flickering and after she’d given it a good battering I remember her bending down to inspect a mass of taped together plugs; I heard a bang, saw a blue flash, then all of a sudden she came over the top of her sofa with a ‘whoop’. Oh how I laughed. She was so comical. I chuckle at the thought of it.
I guess this is love but I don't quite get the words out before she gives me a sloppy kiss anyway.
A few months later she was gone forever. Looking back, it shook me to my boots. My dad was collapsed on the stairs at home when I got home from school, the first time I’d ever seen him sobbing. I immediately felt the solemnity in the moment knowing something very serious was wrong.
"Is it Simba?" I asked but was hugely relieved when he appeared wagging his tail.
Mum took me to one side and gently explained that he’d found her that lunchtime, upstairs in bed after a massive heart attack. I felt the trapdoor give way beneath me and I went down, deep down. Any rice-pudding skinned superficial illusion of mortality that I'd held before that moment collapsed under the inevitable weight of 1979 reality. The cannon ball stalled mid-air, and now spiraled, screaming to the earth.
I dwelt in the fear, feeling the oblivion, finding that whenever I recovered to some semblance of calmness that ghoul would re-appear on my shoulder and whip up the maelstrom to wide-eyed panic; a reminder of the bleak destiny that awaited me. The veil was lifted briefly and I glimpsed the terror beyond.
Yes I loved her dearly.
After a few days my other Nan came to stay with us and i think she got a bit exhausted with my constant wailing. She said that she hoped I'd be as upset when she went. I promised her I would be. My uncle Bill also showed up; he was quite short and well tanned and said things like "G'day Cobber" a lot and taught me some choice Australian slang words. He was very kind and bought me a lot of ice-cream.
After the modest funeral we all went back to the house to sort through her belongings. In that old dresser with the nick nacks we found a battered tin of dried egg powder from the war ration years. My dad was muttering what to do with the budgie and the cage and reminiscing about his pet rabbit ‘Flossy’ who he’d only had a week before he'd come home from school and found it in the cooking pot. I’d heard the story several times already but I listened anyway. It seemed important to him. He'd been repeating old stories a lot recently.
After the drawer was emptied, I carefully removed the ancient newspaper lining and noticed it was from April 1912, it had a black and white picture of the Titanic sinking on the front page. That might have been the oldest and most important thing I’d ever held in my hands. It resonated with me.
I also found a couple of shoe boxes in the pantry. One contained assorted photographs as well as an old postcard atop some letters in envelopes, all tied together with ribbon. On the postcard front was a photo of a baby with curly blonde hair and big blue coloured-in eyes and on the back, in blue ink some words were scrawled, they read; “My darling Fred, here’s your son, our little Billy, God bless”. It was addressed to somewhere in Germany, a place called Stalag luft X. It was dated 1940. I showed it to Uncle Bill; his hands trembled as he read.
After a moment Bill sat down on the stairs and invited me to sit next to him.
"He told me the story of what happened when he got called up... you grandfather".
"Well him and his buddy Buck got split up from their infantry division… on the border of Belgium. During the retreat back to Dunkirk ya know in 1940… they lost contact” he said with a soft Australian accent.
Dad had overheard and walked over.
"With the expeditionary forces..."
"How'd they get lost?" I asked.
“He said it was carnage son, a heavy retreat, so they got to Sandgatte on the coast of northern France hoping to steal a fishing vessel back home to Ramsgate. But they were captured onboard by German soldiers and taken off at gunpoint. He was trying to get home son. Home to me and your Gran. She was pregnant with me when he left”. He gently turned the postcard to see the image on the front again.
Bill wiped his eyes with his sleeve. I cried too.
“He got TB in that bloody POW camp and was held there until they finally let him go in 1943. These are the letters that he wrote home."
"Why'd they let him go?".
"''Cos he was a burden...he couldn't fight, he was coughing up blood by then, no bloody good to any bugger".
"Did he get home?"
“Yeah but he spent his last few years in the hospital at Lenham… they still managed to have your Dad and Michael though before he finally died in 1950. I was eleven”.
Dad slowly pointed to the bay window in the front room and stared for a while.
"He came home eventually; his open casket was over there. It was my only real memory of him". Dad sat silently for a while and rocked gently, his eyes were lost in memories. The clock ticked on the mantel.
"One year I had to wear mum's shoes to school during the winter". He smiled. "Mum did her best to raise us but it was hard times during the rationing on just a war pension and her cleaning job up the Trafalgar...".
Bill put his hand on my shoulder "I left home as soon as I could son. .. got assisted emigration to New Zealand and a printers apprenticeship through the union" He reached into the pantry and brought out the other cardboard box containing bundles of blue air-mail letters carefully wrapped in red ribbon.
"Look like she kept them all. I should've come home more often". He smiled. "Poor old mum".
I was distracted by the budgie chirruping in the cage and I wandered over.
"Pretty boy, Pretty Boy".
It was then that it became clear why, in this house, all the budgies were called Billy.