Breaking Out Grandad – Ben’s tale, chapter one

I blame Mum; it was her fault. Sort of. She was the one who chose to put him in that place. She and my aunt and uncle. I realise they thought they had to, though they never expected things to turn out the way they did. And I’m kind of glad we did what we did.

“We must do something about Dad,” Mum said at the beginning of it all. She’d had yet another phone call in the night and she and my own dad had rushed out, coats over pyjamas, hair all over the place, to sort out Grandad who was digging in his garden at three in the morning.

“Why can’t he be left to dig?” I asked when I heard.

“You can’t have someone his age out in the middle of the night, getting cold and damp,” she said. “Besides, he woke up the neighbours.”

“Yes, and we can’t have precious Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose’s beauty sleep disturbed can we?” I said, though some of my words were a bit ruder than that which made Mum angry and forget the real point. Which was, in my opinion, that Grandad was quite OK, just a bit eccentric, and his neighbour (real name Mrs Snelling, but she always stuck her nose up into the air, so Grandad and I had always called her Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose, much to Mum’s annoyance) was a nasty old bag who wanted him out of there.

Mrs Snelling and Grandad had clashed when her dog had dug up and eaten his turnips and then been very sick and she’d blamed him. They’d also clashed over who owned the fence that was falling down (OK, it was Grandad’s but he didn’t have any money and she did so she could have paid for it) and they’d clashed over Henry the cockerel when Grandad had started keeping chickens. Cockerels are meant to make noise and he was only trying to defend the hens from her dog.

Mrs Snelling shares some of the blame, though she sometimes does the right thing. Only sometimes.

***

I decided to cycle round to see Grandad after school. There was a storm threatening, and the odd rumble of thunder in the distance.

I couldn’t find Grandad at first. He didn’t answer the door but that wasn’t anything too unusual. I let myself in with the spare key he kept in the old watering can. Mum had gone on at him when he had one under a stone so he had obliged her by removing it and putting it in the can instead, only she thought he’d put it sensibly in his kitchen drawer (“What use would that be if I’m locked out?” asked Grandad).

“Grandad. Are you in?” I called.

Silence.

I walked down the hall looking into the rooms. Mum was always moaning about it being a mess and even I could see she was right, though if Grandad was happy, so what? But there were old plates and cups scattered around and not the best smell coming from the kitchen. Kind of burnt and rotten at the same time. A woman called Andrea usually came in to help him some days but I guess she hadn’t been for a day or two.

“Anyone home?” I called.

“Quick! Quick! Get under here! You’ll be safe!” came an echoey voice from under the stairs.

The door to the under-stairs cupboard was open a crack and I opened it further. Grandad was huddled at the far end, a tin bucket over his head.

I crawled in.

“What are you doing?” I asked, making myself as comfortable as is possible with a vacuum cleaner for a seat.

“Sheltering.” His voice echoed in the bucket. “I haven’t finished the Anderson Shelter yet, but this may protect us if a bomb falls.”

“Cool.” I hadn’t played war games since I was a little kid but why not? Grandad had always been up for them then. He had said it helped him make the memories better. I’d thought that was to make me feel that I was being useful and not ‘bothering Grandad’ as Mum used to say, but she also told me that he’d had a bad time in the war, got shot down and was on the run for months, so maybe it was a kind of therapy. So, until I was about 11 and went to Glorney Mead – that’s my secondary school – we’d spent our time flying Spitfires, creeping through enemy territory and making daring escapes from prisoner-of-war camps. Then I’d been too grown-up to play but I guess he still had the bad memories. I felt guilty. Perhaps we should have carried on playing.

A crash of thunder boomed overhead and I heard the spit-splatter of rain on the hall window.

“Some storm,” I said, but Grandad was more into the game than I was. He really looked quite scared.

“It’s OK, it’s just the thunder,” I told him, but he pulled the bucket down over his head. He was actually trembling.

I reached over and squeezed his arm. Slowly his hand uncurled from gripping the side of the bucket and he unfolded his arm and took my hand. He held it tight and we sat there in silence, listening to the rain. With every clap of thunder he gripped me tighter still until my hand hurt and I wished he would stop.

I don’t know how long we sat there until the storm passed.

“I’m getting a bit stiff,” I said, shifting on my bottom. My legs had seized up and I really wanted to move.

“We have to wait ’til the all-clear sounds.” He peered out from under his bucket.

“It did, just now,” I told him.

“Are you sure? I never heard it.”

“You were under the bucket. I had my head by the door.”

“Thank God for that.”

We crawled out from under the stairs and I looked at him. He was a bit pale and he shook and shuffled along towards the kitchen. He kept looking up.

“We don’t seem to have sustained any damage,” he said at last.

“Want a cup of tea?” I asked, deciding it was best to get back to normality.

“Thank you David,” he said.

“It’s Ben.” I was getting a bit worried now. David was my uncle, Mum’s brother, Grandad’s son.

“Ben. Of course.” Grandad’s eyes cleared. “How are you my boy? How’s school.”

“Ok. Good. Boring.” I picked up the washing up bowl and discovered the source of the bad smell. Some charred stew lay in the bottom of the sink. I recognised it as the dinner Mum had brought round on Monday. It was Friday now. No wonder it smelled.

“Hasn’t Andrea been round?” I asked.

“Who’s that?” he asked, picking up a couple of mugs off the table.

“Andrea. You know. Chin Woman.”

We both grinned. Andrea had the most enormous chin, and since she was also a bit frightening – she ordered everyone around – Grandad and I would call her Chin Woman to make us feel better. We did that a fair bit.

“Do you know, I have no idea. I think there may have been some message about her being ill or something. Biscuits. You must have a biscuit.”

We had tea and biscuits and I did a bit of clearing up. I didn’t want Mum coming round later and making more of a fuss about mess and him not managing. He asked me a few times about school and then I realised it was time to get going.

Grandad came to the door to wave me off. As I climbed onto my bike he said “Better get there before it’s dark. I don’t want you cycling in the black out.”

I turned to see if he was smiling but, no, he looked deadly serious.

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