I knew something was strange when my grandfather looked at my mother one day and declared that he wanted to explore. My grandfather had always been content with living in his brick house on the outskirts of London. His sudden declaration had taken both me and my mother by surprise. Still, we were delighted at his interest. He hadn’t ventured outside of the house since his wife, Alice, died ten years ago. I knew my mother had been hoping for a change in him; his sudden curiosity was very welcome.
It was Monday, and raining, as it was wont to do in London. My grandfather had on his warmest cotton coat and black mittens that hid his arthritic fingers. I noted he wore a Trapper hat, covering his bald head and warming his ears. He was well-prepared for the stormy weather. He coughed as I looked at him, and I turned my face away, instead glancing at my mother, who was staring at a map.
“Alright, dad, this way,” she said, pulling my grandfather’s hand and leading him towards the South Bank. I followed, glancing at the Thames as I did so. The river was rocky and high, and the constant downpour made it taller. I pulled my raincoat tighter around my body.
We walked until we made it to the queue. There were many people. Middle-aged parents with children, tourists with cameras, couples in love. We made our way to the back and waited. My grandfather complained his hip was hurting, but when my mother asked him if he wanted to leave, he told her no.
My mother handed the attendee the tickets as we made our way to the entrance. They were expensive, but we’d saved money by buying online. My mother had done it to avoid my grandfather from saying something he shouldn’t about the price. We couldn’t let him know how much we’d spent when it was mostly his idea. We smiled at the attendee as he let us into our capsule.
As a long-life London dweller, I’d been on the London Eye before, but I’d never been with my grandfather. He complained the machine was too slow, and the rocking was making him queasy. As we reached the halfway point he became silent and stared outside. My mother held his hand as he looked at the view, pointing at all the iconic landmarks he’d missed hiding away in his home.
I hurried over and joined them, standing on my grandfather’s right-hand side. From the top of the London Eye, we could see as far as 40 kilometres. I spotted Westminster Abbey, Gothic and haunting; the Shard, tall and almost translucent. We spent a while gazing at the view, wondering at the simple beauty our city possessed. With my grandfather, I gained a new respect for the industrial buildings surrounding us. He was smiling, a smile I’d never seen before, and I realised that he was happy.
The next day my mother had suggested St Paul’s Cathedral. My grandfather had worked as a builder, and my mother knew he was a fan of architecture. I didn’t argue. It was perfect for my grandfather, and this week was about him. He was still acting a little shady for my liking. He kept telling my mother he loved her, hugging me close when I felt sad, and cooking our favourite meals as a thank you. I couldn’t quite understand what was going on in his head, but I liked it a lot. We’d never been the closest, but now I felt like we understood each other. There was no longer any confusion between us, just pure familial love.
St Paul’s Cathedral took my grandfather’s breath away when he laid eyes upon it. My mother welled up too, but I held firm. It was a building, after all. Still, I could appreciate the exterior. The dome grabbed my attention. It looked like a drum, with layers and windows offering a secretive glance at what lay inside. It was gigantic, and my grandfather was rubbing his hands and dancing a little as we stood there. My mother had to get him to calm down as we entered, told him to act more normal. I’d never seen him behave in such a way. He was like a child given free rein at a sweet shop, grabbing all the chocolates, liquorice, and mints he could find.
Inside, my grandfather became more enraptured by the structure. I could tell from his wide eyes that he wanted to touch the sturdy walls, but my mum kept holding him back. She was good at that, good at stopping people from doing things they shouldn’t. I wondered for a second if she knew why my grandfather was acting so odd, but she hadn’t let anything slip and so I dismissed the thought. My mother told me everything, had since my dad had left us when I was five, and I knew her better than anyone. She would tell me if it was something important.
My grandfather had woken me up that day by handing me three tickets and beaming. I clutched the tickets in my hand, eyes bleary, and tried to make out the writing. It was hard without my glasses. I had to rummage around for a good five minutes, but I found them and shoved them on my face. Once on, I glanced at the tickets. Macbeth, at the Globe.
I ran downstairs and showed them to my mother, who looked as confused as I did, but happy. My mother and I had never been to a performance at the Globe and it felt like a fresh day for all of us, not just my grandfather. I could hardly wait.
My grandfather had gotten us the cheapest tickets he could find, and I was a little concerned at first. I asked him if he knew they were standing tickets. He said he didn’t care, that he was just happy to see a production in his lifetime. I’d agreed. My family rarely went to the theatre, and it felt like a proper treat. I watched, enraptured, as the actors monologued. As the witches cackled, Banquo’s ghost appeared, and Macduff beheaded Macbeth.
My grandfather watched it all in silence, letting out a cry here and then. He’d never been one for classics, but I could feel him enjoying it the longer the play went on. I could tell from the way his hands tightened around his coat and his little shivers as Lady Macbeth spoke. I knew, from the slight trembles in his body, that he was enjoying the production as much as my mother and I were.
After the show, I’d initiated a hug with him for the first time. My grandfather seemed taken aback, shocked, and then pulled me into a firm embrace. My mother smiled and joined in. It was a comfortable hug, a hug that seemed full of promise, full of affection between all three of us. I’d never felt so loved.
I’d suggested the Natural History Museum for our next trip. My mother and my grandfather had paused in their conversation for a second, looked at me, and then agreed. My mother told my grandfather it was an amazing museum, full of history as museums often are, and my grandfather had laughed. It was a bright laugh, young and sweet and full of life. I’d never heard him make a sound like that before, but now I wanted to hear it from him all the time. I told him as much, and he patted me on the shoulder, told me I was a good grandson, and put his shoes on.
I had always loved the Natural History Museum. When I was younger, museums had been my way of escaping when the arguments in our house got too much. My babysitter had often taken me, while my mum was busy earning us money to keep afloat. My dad had been who knows where. I loved the different exhibitions, but my favourite was the ‘Human Evolution’ section. I loved history and science and learning about our species was one of my favourite pastimes. My mother didn’t get my fascination, but she supported it.
As we entered, I dragged them to my favourite section. I was babbling away, and probably annoying them, but they didn’t interrupt me, so I thought it best to keep rambling. I knew where I wanted to go. My grandfather and my mother followed as I led them to one of the fossils.
I told them that the fossil I was showing them was a 3.5-million-year-old Laetoli canine. My grandfather looked confused while my mother sighed, annoyed but fond. I’d shown her the fossil before and she clearly wanted to go to the ‘Dinosaur’ exhibition, but I was still on cloud nine. I waved her away, and she left to look around the rest of the collection. My grandfather stood by me, hand on his hip, and listened to me talk. I told him it was the oldest hominin fossil that the museum had, and that it was similar to how chimpanzees looked. My grandfather listened, nodding his head at the appropriate moments. He’d never paid me this much attention before. It was the best day of my life.
I’d taken him further around the exhibit. I needed to show him everything. First, it was the Neanderthal skull, then the Clacton spear and the Cheddar Man skeleton. I spoke to him for what felt like hours, letting all my knowledge flow until even I was breathless from it. Throughout it all, he never spoke, and just listened to me. His silence never deterred me. I instead took his wide grins as permission to keep talking about my interests. My grandfather and I shared that same trait; when we loved something, we wouldn’t stop talking about it.
We had plans to go visit Kew Gardens today. It was my mother’s turn to pick, and she loved flowers, so it felt right for her to choose such a pleasant location. I hadn’t been before, but I’d heard all about it from my mother. She rambled about the glasshouses, the entire rooms full of cacti, to the 320 metres of rainbow flowers. The more she spoke about them, the more I wanted to visit.
We’d gone to wake my grandfather up from his room. It was past nine o’clock, and usually he was ready to go by eight. It felt unusual for him not to be up early. I reasoned the long walks at the Natural History Museum yesterday had made him more tired. My mother knocked on his door, but there was no answer.
We’d called his name a few times and then pushed the door open. My grandfather was there, lying on the middle of the bed. He looked as if he was sleeping. I wondered if we needed to call an ambulance, before my mother headed over and felt his pulse. I watched, detached, as she met my worried gaze.
No pulse, she told me. My grandfather had no pulse. I felt cold, but not as cold as my mother did, and held her tight as she sobbed. It made sense now, why he’d wanted to explore London, why he’d wanted to spend time with us, why he’d made us all those fantastic meals. He knew that he was dying, and he hadn’t told either of us.
It was his way of saying goodbye.