TRIGGER WARNING: themes of grief and loss.
Tom found opening his eulogy a lot harder than his pallbearing duties. Carrying the coffin was a bit surreal. It didn’t feel like Grandad Bill in there; it was just a box. A heavy box. But talking to the small crowd of mourners, when he was one himself, brought home the reality of the situation.
Tom's mind wandered to his poor Grandma Ursula, as he collected his thoughts in the pulpit. The family had never had much money and he worried that care would be difficult as she grew frail.
He’d written down what he wanted to say, but standing there in the chapel, facing his tearful grandmother and parents, his prepared words felt empty and over rehearsed. His sister, Lucy, folded her arms to stop herself shaking. His three cousins frowned between sobs. Aunt Helen hunched in her pew. He glanced at the rows of elderly friends behind his family and felt the mortality on their faces.
‘I was going to read a kind of biography of my grandad today. To tell you all about his schooling and when he joined the army, how much he loved his woodwork, how he met my gran and when his kids were born. But you know all that already. You also know that Grandad Bill didn’t always live in this world. He spent considerable time in a land inhabited by magical creatures and tireless heroes. A world he used to invite me to as a child, and a world I took for granted all too often.’
He searched Grandma Ursula's face. She met him with a tepid smile, but that glint in her eyes was returning, and it willed him on.
‘I’m going to put my notes down and, instead, share my favourite one of his tales. The one I will most fondly remember and the one he probably told you all, many times. So do join in with the punch lines.’ Tom smiled. The whole room smiled.
‘Once, when he was still training in the damp of the Cawdor Barracks, in. . .’ Tom nodded to his cousins, and they softly recited:
‘Wet Welsh Wales!’
Tom stifled a giggle. ‘Grandad Bill was caught in a storm when the wind whipped up, the fog came down and visibility was lost.’ Tom pointed at his sister, Lucy, and she chimed in:
‘A real pea-souper!’ There was a murmur of laughter from the back row.
‘Grandad Bill couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. He stood up from his prone position, slinging his rifle over his shoulder. He called to his drill sergeant, but...’ Tom waved to his mum and dad.
‘'e was deaf as 'e was dim.’ They piped up.
‘So, Grandad Bill started marching. North, as far as he could tell. But the ground was rough, and the hill was steep, and the sky was dark.’ Tom paused.
With no encouragement needed, Lucy and her parents said, ‘'e marched till 'is foot come loose!’ Another giggle from the back.
‘At which point he stopped to check his surroundings and could just make out a campfire up ahead. Thinking it was the other recruits, he headed directly for it, but the fire wasn’t constant. It flared and faded against the storm. After a few minutes he could smell charred wood on the air and knew he was close.’ Tom winked at his cousins.
‘Closer than a hooker is to 'ell.’ they said.
Tom’s grandmother blushed, but couldn’t hide her smile. There were a few sharp intakes of breath around the room, and a shuffling of feet. Perhaps only the family had heard that one before.
‘There was a gap in the fog and Grandad Bill checked his compass in the moonlight. He wasn’t heading north. He was heading east-north-east. “Sarge?” he shouted, but no reply.’ Tom waved to his parents.
‘At least no earthly one!’
‘Instead of a regimental greeting, there was an almighty roar that echoed around him. With it came a burst of flame that lit the air. Grandad Bill was no longer on the rugged grass of the training ground. He’d wandered straight into a…’ Tom smiled at his gran.
‘Ruddy great cave!’
‘And there before him, nostrils smoking, claws extended, scales shimmering, was a God's honest dragon...’
Tom didn’t have to gesture this time-the whole family joined in.
‘Tall as a cart'orse and twice as long!’
The whole congregation laughed and clapped their hands and Tom waited for the noise to dampen.
‘It was stamping the ground and snarling. Spittle dripping from razor-sharp teeth, crimson scales glistening in the light of its own fiery breath. And Grandad Bill thought to himself…’
‘If this is my ending, what a great story!’
‘He stumbled backwards and lost his footing, planting his hand down on the ground to save himself. That was when he realised that the dragon’s lair was paved with gold. He felt like a...’ Tom paused.
‘Twisted Dick Whittington!’ There was laughter from the whole room.
‘But of course, he had no cat.’ Said Tom, to further applause. ‘And the situation was getting dangerous. As he stood, he grabbed two gold coins from the floor and slipped them into his pocket. One paid for his wedding, and the other is...’
‘Never you mind!' said the family in unison, all tapping the sides of their noses.
There was a collective Ahhhhhh from the congregation.
‘Grandad Bill wasn’t going to escape that easily. The exit from the cave must have been behind him, but turning to run, he couldn’t see it. It was still pitch dark both inside and outside the cave and the only light came when the dragon breathed his flames. Those flames were getting closer with every roar and the roaring was getting more frequent. He swung his rifle off his back and took aim towards the growling. Grandad Bill fired a single shot…’
‘It was 'is best ever aim.’
The room fell silent.
‘The bullet hit the dragon’s chest and fire billowed from the beast’s mouth, lighting up the cave and showing Grandad Bill the way out. But it also chipped a scale loose from the dragon’s armour and that scale, the size of a scallop shell, fell at his feet…’
‘Red as a light in a brothel!’
Ursula was so captivated by the storytelling that she almost forgot to blush.
‘The dragon winced and turned. It stopped its chase and retreated into the cave. Grandad Bill took the scale and ran. By the time he found his way out, the fog was lifting, and he could see his way back to the camp. His regiment had pitched up right near the entrance to the cave.
'Grandad Bill persuaded the sergeant to move the camp, telling him that the rain would make the sloping ground unstable, and that he thought he'd seen rats nearby.
'He hid the gold, and the scale, in his pack. He never spoke of them until his honourable discharge six years later. And then, only to explain to his new bride how on earth he had afforded a wedding reception at The Grosvenor.’ Tom paused.
‘A damn fine party it was too!’ the family chorused.
‘Oh, it really was!’ said Ursula, a smile beaming across her face.
‘The other gold coin never materialised, and how Grandad Bill paid for that wedding we will never know. But he did. Unlike the story of the dragon, there are photographs to prove it.’
The room erupted in smiles and laughter, and there was a short round of applause.
‘So, it is with a heavy heart, but one full of magical stories, that we say a fond farewell to Grandad Bill this afternoon. He touched all of our lives and made us better people, even if he did teach a few young children some questionable phrases. And who knows, maybe he even saved an entire training regiment from certain death.’
At the wake, Tom and his family regaled their guests with other fantastical stories Bill had told them many times over.
. . .
The following day, spiders crept into corners as the tool shed door squeaked open and sunlight touched their filigree webs. Tom scratched his stubble. It felt wrong to empty the space but his grandmother couldn’t look at that stuff for one more day.
‘I just need it done, Love. Too many memories.’ She said.
‘I know Gran, I know.’ Tom settled a gentle arm around her shoulders. ‘Are you sure you don’t want to save anything at all?’
‘I have what I need to remember Bill by.’ Ursula swept a tear from her cheek and touched her palm to her heart. ‘It’s all in here. All in here. Unless you find a winning lottery ticket, or a safe I don't know about.'
‘All those stories keep him with us I suppose. You know, I used to believe him as a kid.’
‘You mean you didn’t as an adult?’
‘Of course not, well, not all of them.’
Ursula’s face fell a little, but she didn’t comment on Tom’s lack of faith. ‘Well, if you don’t mind, Love, I’ll leave you to it. There’s a chilly wind getting up and my old bones should be by the fire.’
‘That’s fine Gran, you go inside.’
Ursula shuffled across the dewy grass, and disappeared through the back door as Tom stepped into the shed. The air was musty. Bill had been in hospital for a few months before he passed, and the lack of activity in the shed was evident. Tom ran his fingers over the cold jaws of the bench vice. They came away coated in greyness. His grandfather never would have allowed a scene like this.
‘You’re not done ‘til you’ve dusted.’ Tom said to the air, recalling how Bill’s eyes would sparkle with the phrase.
Tom started with the smaller things, hammers, spanners, screwdrivers. He packed them neatly into tool boxes, dusting them as he went. He lifted saws from their rack and wrapped them into leather cases, wiping the blades one last time. He was reluctant to part with things so soon, but Ursula was grateful that the shed would be emptied. The waste of those tools sitting idle was adding mental scar tissue to her already sprawling grief.
It was all going to a great home. A charity that taught trades to the homeless and unemployed. Bill had written this instruction in his letter of wishes. There had also been a line about a heart-shaped box to be given to Ursula, but no one knew where it was.
After the hand tools were loaded, it was time to start on the power tools. There were drills, angle grinders, belt sanders, jigsaws, hedge trimmers and a chain saw. Of course, Grandad Bill had kept the original packaging and boxes under the workbench so it was easy to clean them up and get them van-ready.
After loading up the final box, Tom returned to sweep the floor of the workshop. He picked up the broom and started in the corner furthest from the door. About a third of the way across the boards, one shifted under foot.
‘Not like you Grandad, to have anything imperfect in the workshop.’ He said to the air as he bent down to check the board. There was a slight groove around the edge which was only perceptible after he brushed the sawdust out. Pressing down on one end resulted in the other end lifting slightly. Tom soon worked the board out of the floor to reveal a dark gap beneath.
Grabbing a torch, he checked for rodents, but something else presented itself. In the gloom under the tool shed was a heart-shaped wooden box about the size of Tom’s hands placed together. He lifted it out and wiped off the dust with a cloth, admiring the inlaid mother-of-pearl triangles that tessellated across the top. The lid was tight fitting and Tom edged it off with a steady hand.
His eyes widened and his mouth fell open as the contents came into view.
The box held a large gold coin and a sliver of something hard and red, about the size of a scallop shell, that glistened in the daylight.