Thursday, April 15, 2021

Memory by Matthew Thorpe-Apps

Daylight was beginning to soften as George pulled his cardigan over his head and flapped loose grass away with his hand as he approached the back of his grandpa’s bungalow. He had just finished mowing the back lawn, a chore he undertook every Sunday afternoon to help his weary grandfather. 

He entered the small kitchen where everything was in arm’s reach. Tea-stained mugs cluttered the surfaces over to the right, and to his left canned foods formed a barricade beneath the low wall cupboards. 

‘Tea, grandpa?’ he called in the direction of the lounge. 

Grandpa heaved an affirmative and George set to work, peeling away the top from a new milk bottle.

 He scraped the cream sitting thickly on top and spooned it in a fresh mug and poured tea over the top.

 Just the way his grandpa liked it. 

George noticed tea bags mounting in an old, lidless tin container with French writing inscribed on its sides, so he emptied these out and replaced it where it was. 

Then George was in the lounge where his grandpa was sitting as still as the rest of the room. 

It was like walking into an old antique picture. 

The smell of the room was a collection of old times. Old fabrics and papers that lounged in corners like old lap dogs. The most prized paper of them all was the VE Day paper printed by 

The Daily Telegraph printed back in May 1945, framed in a glass case with a section of shelf all to itself. 

The room seemed to be losing its colours as they wore thin in the wallpaper and the carpet and the tops of shelves as the dust continued to settle. 

Now, grandson and grandpa are sitting before a muted television set in seats that were finely sculpted to the body through years of use. From the hall came the constant tick tock of the grandfather clock and occasionally the rustling of parrot feathers from the aviary hanging before the lounge windows through which the striped lawn could be seen laid out like a fresh new carpet. 

George remembered only a year ago not being able to touch the floor in the same seat in which he now sat. He also remembered how his grandma, Veronica, used to bake cookies and offer him more than he could possibly eat. He thought about the colouring set he and 

Veronica would sit around, drawing flowers and people sitting outside their houses. That all stopped when she passed six months ago. 

Grandpa was too old for fun and games. Nowadays George would just sit by his side and ask questions, answers to which it seemed only his grandpa could possibly know. 

He turned to look at his grandpa’s ancient features with the same close interest as museum goers studying ancient artefacts. 

’Grandpa, why is your hair grey?’ 

‘It was the air that made it go grey, boy. Hot air while walking through miles of deserts, frosted glacier air from the poles, heavy air before thunder, still air in the tropics, spiced air in the Mediterranean, salted air out at sea. Eventually it turns a man’s hair grey just like it has mine. Just drains the colour right out of it like thin dye. That’s why.’ 

The boy leaned over the arm of his chair making the faded seat cushion groan beneath him. 

‘And why do you have to wear glasses all the time? Thomas at school wears glasses but only for reading.’ 

‘Because when you’ve read all the books there are to read in the world and you’ve seen all the magnificent sights that you’ll never forget, and you’ve written all the love poems your mind can come up with, and when you’ve opened one hundred thousand letters and read just as many manuals, your eyes begin to grow tired.’ 

Grandpa’s eyes slid to the right to take in George’s face. They moved along as slow as old stones. George felt an unmistakeable force in those eyes which sat deeply in sagging sockets. 

‘What about your skin?’ George asked next. ‘Why does it have wrinkle lines all over it?’ 

‘Our skin shifts and shapes and forms like the plates of the earth, boy. Every time we smile or get cross or shout with our mouths wide open or cry and throw our heads into our hands, our skin loses its softness and get all these lines. Nothing you can do about it, though.’ 

George saw the webs of wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and he wondered how many times his grandpa had wept. 

The boy’s eyes settled on the whitened scar running down the right side of his grandpa’s temple. He didn’t want to ask about that. Instead he asked, ‘Why are your ears so big?’ 

Grandpa gave a wheezy sigh, chest lifting in a slow wave and his nostrils flaring to let the air back out. 

‘When you’ve heard enough screaming and shouting and sirens and gunfire and heard trees fall in the forests and storms break open the sky and rain pummel the earth and-’ 

‘But it is so quiet in your house, grandpa,’ said the boy. 

‘Yeah, well, silence is a sound all on its own and you’ll hear plenty of it too when you get to my age. I’ve heard it in churches, in funeral homes, in cemeteries and all through the night. Sometimes it is that that keeps me awake at night over the aches and pains an aged body picks up over the years. Anyway, after years of listening to laughter and lies and lust and passionate speeches, and the rumble of trains on tracks and loudspeakers and crowds, and theatre music and radio talk, all of these things and much more make your ears grow large.’ 

‘Why do you always have the tv on mute?’ asked the boy. 

‘Because I’ve heard just about enough, that’s why. And since I have watched more hours of talk shows than time you have been alive, I know what’s going to come up next. I don’t need to lip read to know this strung up woman’s about to launch a verbal attack on her abusive partner.’ 

George assisted his grandpa in setting his mug of tea back on the coaster beside his armchair.

‘And what about your nose?’ asked the boy, not really interested in the show. 

‘Same idea, kid. You walk through miles of meat markets, exotic bazars with endless passageways, smell fresh food money can’t buy you, the smell of sweat when you’ve worked every hour in a day, the smell of home when you’ve been away for longer than you can remember, the smell of iced cake and pine on Christmas day, the smell of logs on an open fire, the smell of the earth you walk on. All of these things give you a superior sense of smell and makes your nose grow.’ 

The boy turned to focus on the tv screen and sure enough the woman was going after the guy who it appeared had been up to some dirty deed. The live audience sneered silently while others were shaking their heads. 

George scrolled his eyes across all the tapes and CDs and books and magazines resting on a plank shelf held up by nails. He looked at the walls and saw all the pictures from the different countries of the world. The memorabilia neatly shelved in the cabinet to his right. 

The pieces inside, such as the gallantry medals and postcards, were things accumulated and hard-earned from Asia to the Middle East to the Americas. 

George turned back to his grandpa and saw something unsettling. The hairs on his grandpa’s arms were beginning to straighten and the skin was covered in goosebumps. 

‘Grandpa, what’s happening?’ 

Then the doorbell rang, and the silhouette of his mother darkened the glass. 

Grandpa wiped down his arms. Exhalations sawed rigidly between his teeth and into the dusty quiet room. 

Grandpa said, ’Not everything you see and hear and feel will be good, understand? And there won’t be anything you can do to stop those memories sitting in your head like a curse. 

Now, go and open the door for your mother.’ 

The boy got up and was making his way over the faded blue carpet, feeling panicked.

‘You hear the clock out in the hallway?’ his grandpa spoke up just before the boy reached the front door. 

‘Sure, you can hear it from every corner of your home.’ 

‘Many things in life we can hold on to, some of which we have no choice but to live with, but time isn’t one of them. Make sure never to waste a second of it. Now go.’

© Matthew Thorpe-Apps

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