Mum clucked when I mentioned it. I shouldn’t have said anything about Grandad but I guess I must have been worrying about him and it just slipped out.
“That doesn’t sound good. And how was the place looking? Had Andrea been round? I must go and see him. I’m really not sure he can manage at home anymore, especially after these night-time digging episodes.” She glanced at the clock and then at the table in front of her. She had been making pastry and it wasn’t going well. Mum thinks she should cook from scratch each day and she had the recipe book open on Chicken and Leek Pie. It would be a good hour or so before we had it.
I headed for the fridge for something to keep me going.
“I haven’t got time to go round this evening. Or maybe if I put this in the oven and you kept an eye on it, Ben, though I’ve got to do vegetables too.” She pushed her glasses back onto her nose and left a white smudge of flour on one lens. Her attempts at wiping it off made it worse. It would be a long, long time until we ate.
“I’ve got homework,” I said, using an excuse that Mum would approve of and hoping she wouldn’t remember it was Friday and I never did homework on Fridays. “You’d better stay.” Mum didn’t have time to do half the things she tried to do – like cooking for instance – but she could never see it. “I’m sure he’s alright. He seemed the same as ever,” I added, seeing her face crease with anxiety.
Mum sighed and went back to her pastry.
“I’ll have him over for lunch tomorrow,” she said. “I could invite Auntie Janice too.”
My heart sank. We were going to have One Of Those Meals….
Saturday is a day for a lie-in, a day to relax. My brain and body need it. I’m 15, almost 16, and there’s a book that explains about how our brains change when we’re teenagers and why someone of my age needs rest and – a book I gave to Mum and Dad but they haven’t really taken it in. Mum thinks Saturday is Family Day, when we can all do something together like go for a long walk, have a meal. “It’s our only chance to spend time together,” she sighed when Molly and I complained, or I complained and Molly just stood in the background and looked awkward. She’s only 11.
“Sundays are so busy,” added Mum. She and Dad are crazy church-goers, always taking old ladies here and there, sitting on committees, serving lunches, running youth groups. They had a go at getting me and Molly involved. Molly’s young enough to be sucked into it all but I haven’t been for years. School work can be a good excuse when you don’t want to hurt feelings.
And on some Saturdays she likes to make sure family means not just us but aunts, uncles and cousins, as well as Grandad. She’s never worked out that we don’t like all branches of the family.
Saturday dawned. OK, I didn’t see the dawn and I did my best not to see any of the morning but Mum made sure I couldn’t sleep by sending Bonzo Dog in. Bonzo is half-dog, half-tornado with a flatulence problem that could strip wallpaper. So if his licks and nuzzles don’t get you up, his smell will. So 10am and I was awake and 11am I was peeling potatoes.
“Glad to see you’re doing a bit of spud bashing,” said Dad on his way through with a box of cheap red wine. Dad wasn’t in the army but sometimes tries to suggest he was.
Janice is Mum’s sister. She got divorced a year or so back and is bringing up Ellie and Jack on her own. They’re ten-year-old twins. Ellie’s alright but Jack’s a little… wait, I’ve got to think of a polite way of saying it… pain. That’ll do. He’s really competitive and has to win at everything. I try not to let him, though that may be lowering myself to his level.
Anyway Janice – or Auntie Janice as Mum still thinks we should call her – had jumped at the opportunity to come round and dilute the twins, even if it meant having to go out of her way and pick up Grandad.
Mum was preparing steak and kidney pudding. “It’s your Grandad’s favourite,” she told me as I raised an eyebrow at the elaborate preparations. “Granny used to make it – proper suet pastry and boiled in a basin.”
“But doesn’t that take like three hours or something?” I remembered my Gran putting it on to boil before we had squash and biscuits at 10 o’clock when we stayed with her and Grandad.
“No, I don’t think so.” Mum looked again at the recipe book. “I think it will be ready in time. We’re having a starter after all.”
It would be a late lunch.
In fact, it was a good thing that the pudding wasn’t ready until three, what with the trouble over Grandad. Janice and the twins went to pick him up and he wasn’t there, even though Mum and Janice had both spoken to him just half-an-hour or so before. Maybe with all the fuss they were making he had decided to go to ground for a while.
“Where can he be?” Mum was pacing up and down, her heels clicking on the kitchen floor as she intermittently checked the lunch, her watch and the drive outside. “Perhaps he’s wandered off.”
“He’s probably just nipped out to the shop and got talking,” said Dad, putting his arm around her. She shook him off then turned and buried her face in his shoulder. When she raised her eyes and noticed me watching them she stood back and forced a smile across her face.
“Yes, you’re right Alan. He’s probably lost track of time. Ben, can you get those little green dishes out for the melon?”
The clock in the dining room ticked on, counting out the seconds while we waited. I wasn’t worried, not really, or I wouldn’t have been if Mum hadn’t gone on about it, or if she’d just been cross about having to keep food warm.
At twenty-past-two I answered the phone while Mum circled me like a bluebottle. It was Jack on Janice’s mobile.
“We have located the alien life force. I repeat, we have located the …”
“Alright Jack, enough. You’ve got Grandad?”
“Is he OK?” squeaked Mum hopping on her heels.
I glared at her.
“Our spaceship will be landing at approximately…Mum, what’s the time?”
I could just hear Janice’s reply: “Of for goodness sake Jack, tell them we’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“But what time will that be? In 24 hour clock?”
I put the phone down and turned to Mum.
“They’ll be here in 10 minutes.”
The steak and kidney pudding was good, I’ll give Mum credit for that. I was even allowed a glass of wine though the rations on alcohol are strict in this house. I found Grandad in the kitchen, empty glass in hand, searching for a bottle. He winked at me.
“It’s in a box,” I whispered.
“A box? Why would anyone want to keep wine in a box? It’d soak through.”
“I think there’s probably a plastic bag or something inside.” I dragged the wine box out from under the kitchen table where Dad had hidden it.
“Worse and worse. Still, needs must old boy. Have one yourself.”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
I found an empty glass, filled up his and mine and we clinked.
We drank in appreciative silence. The hatch between kitchen and dining room was closed but the walls are thin in our house – it’s some sort of mass-produced box, not like Grandad’s Victorian one – and I could hear the others talking.
“Molly, Ellie and Jack, you may get down. I’ll call you to help with the washing up shortly,” said Mum. I heard them scuttling across the hall and up the stairs and then the remaining adults started.
“I’m getting really worried about Dad,” said Mum.
“I know.” This was Janice.
“Where do you really think he was?” My own dad was speaking with his mouth full, probably still on the cheese and biscuits.
“I’ve no idea,” replied Janice. “He just turned up round the front of the house from the back garden and looked confused when he saw us. His shoes were filthy though, like he’d been tramping through mud. I made him change them.”
“But he’s been fine since he’s been here. Chatting away.” Dad again.
“Yes, but he asked me where Bess was,” said Mum.
“Who?” It sounded like Dad had taken another bite of biscuit.
“Bess. Our mother.”
“But she’s been dead for…oh.” Dad trailed off. “That’s not good.”
“No. It’s all so worrying.”
In the kitchen Grandad drained his glass and grinned at me.
“The good thing about being old,” he said, “is that when you go out to lunch, no-one expects you to do the washing up. I think I’ll just go and have a little sit down.”
See! There was nothing wrong with him. My parents and Janice were just fussing.