“Ben! For tenth time! Will you just hurry up!”
“You exaggerate, Mother dearest. You have called me but eight times!”
“Don’t be rude!”
I wasn’t. I considered it gentle teasing but Mum was not in the mood. I was late for school. She was late for work.
“Just get on. You should be at school in five minutes shouldn’t you?”
“It’s only assembly.”
“Well, you still have to get there on time. Now go!”
She was heading for the front door and I for the back when the phone rang. I saw her hesitate and then sigh. She picked it up.
Silence. Then: “What do you mean he’s not there? Are you sure?” More silence. “He must have gone to get something, milk maybe.… “Missing? Are you sure he hasn’t put them somewhere funny? In a different cupboard maybe.”
I stood, bag in hand, watching her. She waved crossly at me and mouthed “Go on!” But I stayed where I was.
“Alright, Andrea, I’m coming over,” she said and put the phone down. As she turned to me I sensed that she was rearranging her features to become ‘calm, in control Mum’.
“What’s happened Mum? Is it Grandad?”
“It’s nothing. He’s just popped out for a paper and Andrea got in a flap. You know what she’s like.”
Yes. I did. I didn’t much like Andrea because of the way she bossed Grandad, but she didn’t get in flaps. Besides which, Grandad had a paper delivered – I used to deliver it myself when I had a paper round – and there was plenty of milk in the fridge when I was there yesterday.
“Stop standing there gawping at me and get to school!” Mum snapped. Then she came over and did something odd. She gave me a hug. We hadn’t hugged in about three years.
“I’ll come with you,” I said.
“What? To work?”
“No. To Grandad’s. That’s where you’re going. You told Andrea.”
“No. Well, I might pop in on my way to work.” Her work is in the opposite direction.
“I can miss assembly.”
She shook her head. “Hurry to school now.” She turned and almost ran out of the house and into the car. Moments later she roared off down the street. I followed on my bike.
Chin Woman was in a right state. She was pacing up and down while Mum interrogated her.
“I told you; I arrived and he wasn’t here,” she squawked. “Just the cupboards open and those things gone.”
“I’m sure there must be a rational explanation.” Mum started pacing too and the two of them marched up and down like lions in an enclosure.
“What things have gone?” I asked.
Both women swung round, glared at me and said in unison: “Why aren’t you at school?” See, I said Chin Woman was bossy and Mum is, well, just Mum.
“What things have gone?” I repeated, a little louder in case they hadn’t heard.
“Some random bits and pieces,” said Chin Woman. “The little saucepan which hung up by the cooker.”
“And his torch that he always kept by the backdoor so I’m worried he went out in the night,” said Mum, her voice squeaky with anxiety.
“And that nice throw is missing,” added Chin Woman. “The green and brown one from the chair by the French windows. And a tin of soup I was going to give him for lunch today.”
Not necessarily so random. “I’ll just check out the back,” I muttered.
Down the garden Grandad had obviously been doing a bit more digging. The hole was about three feet deep now and longer than it was wide. I shuddered. It reminded me of a grave. And should he be digging at his age? Supposing he had overdone it and had a heart attack, or felt ill and stumbled into the lane where he had collapsed.
‘Pull yourself together, Ben,’ I told myself. Someone would have found him by now and, if they had, then the phone call would have been different.
I peered out into the lane, looking quickly from left to right in case I saw him. Of course, there was no sign of him, either lying prone on the ground, his face ashen grey, his lips… (stop it Ben!) or ambling back from the shop with another newspaper.
I crossed into the woods.
The light was soft and was probably doing all sorts of pretty dapply things but I didn’t take any notice. I stepped forward as quietly as I could, scanning the tangle of shrubs, trunks, branches and twigs in front of me.
I could hear birdsong but no other sign of animal life. I moved on towards the clearing where we had once made camp and where we had picked the mushrooms. But the clearing lay undisturbed. Perhaps I was wrong and Grandad was actually at the shop. After all, I was usually at school at this time of day so I didn’t know his morning routine.
At the far side of the wood was a field where Gran, Grandad and I had had picnics that summer I had stayed, and I decided to walk through, just to check he wasn’t there. I wandered on, still taking care to keep quiet, until I came to a dense thicket of bushes which forced me to walk around them. On the other side was another small clearing which looked familiar. It was surrounded by the bushes on two sides and ash and oak trees on the other two. At the far end was the stump of a huge oak which must have come down years before and created the clearing. I remembered Grandad pointing out the badger set under the stump. I had been fascinated and had sat and watched the stump for what had seemed like hours in case a black and white face appeared. I didn’t stop to wonder about the badgers now though for in front of it, wrapped in a green and brown blanket, sat Grandad. He had made a little fire and had balanced a saucepan on it.
I stood still, watching. He had not yet seen me and was absorbed in the task of stirring whatever was in the saucepan. I edged nearer and heard a shriek:
“Ben! Ben! Where are you?” It was Mum.
Grandad jumped up, saw me and took a step backwards. He tripped over the log he had been sitting on and fell back with a crack against the stump.
He wasn’t badly hurt but we had to take him to hospital for a check-up. Mum tried to send me off to school but I convinced her that I could revise where I was so I spent several hours in Accident and Emergency, stranded on a hard plastic chair, staring at a biology text book and trying to remember the different parts of the human respiratory system, while all the time glancing over at Grandad whom lay in bed alternately dozing and then demanding what was going on. I couldn’t tell him. I didn’t know myself and I hoped someone would come up with an answer.
Mum was quick to come up with questions and a whole load of ideas about what was wrong with her father. Chin Woman, who had come with us (against my wishes) did not help when she spilled the beans about all the odd things he had been doing. I couldn’t see that they were that odd; well, not if you looked at them individually. But put things like hoarding food in his bedroom together with all the other things – including Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose’s gossipy opinions as we were leaving for the hospital (“I’ve been worried for months now – all that digging and telling me that walls have ears”) – and I was more bothered than I was about to say. I was pleased to see the plaster on her stuck-up nose though.
“We’ll do an assessment, Mrs Crouch,” the doctor said, trying – and failing – to reassure Mum.
“An assessment of what?” said an accusing voice. We all swung round. Grandad was standing there, glaring at us. “What am I doing here?”
“Dad, please, go and lie back down.” Mum tried to steer him but he shook her off.
“I said, what am I doing here?”
“Don’t worry Dad, it’s all OK.”
“It is not ‘OK’ as you put it. I do not know why I am here.”
“Grandad, you slipped and bashed your head.” I grasped his arm and he started to push me off and then checked himself. “I think you may have a bit of concussion,” I added.
“Oh.” He seemed to deflate. “Really. Well, I never. I don’t remember a thing about it. Perhaps that is the concussion. But my head is a bit sore.” He touched the back of his scalp then looked at his fingers. “No blood though!” He smiled brightly.
“See he’s perfectly OK,” I said, but no-one was interested in my opinion. They weren’t much interested in Grandad’s opinion either.
In fact, it all went downhill from there. They decided to keep Grandad in hospital for a night and then swung into meetings with doctors, a psychiatric team, social services, the man who put the bins out…well, why not? Everyone else seemed to have a say, everyone except me, Molly and Grandad.
“What’s wrong with Grandad?” Molly asked me that evening.
“He tripped and bumped his head.”
“Yeah, but I heard Mum tell Dad that he was cooking stuff in the woods and was doing weird things,” she said, head on one side and balancing on the side of her shoes
“They don’t know anything,” I snapped at her and then regretted it. It wasn’t her fault. I got up from the sofa and stretched.
“Where are you going?” asked Molly, her bottom lip pouting.
“To see Grandad.”
“But it won’t be visiting hours.”
“So? I can’t think they will stop me seeing my old grandfather.”
“Can I come?”
“No! It’s your bedtime or something.”
“It is!” I ran out the door before she could answer and was on my bike and down the road before she could tell Mum and Dad.
The main entrance to the hospital was closed but I found ‘Entrance B’ and made my way to the geriatric ward on pink corridor. Nasty name ‘geriatric’, nasty pink too, like Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose’s face powder, too bright, too fake, too falsely cheerful.
The nurse at the desk wasn’t cheerful, falsely or otherwise. She wouldn’t let me in
“But I’ve come miles to see him,” I said, which was partly true. I had come about three miles. And it was raining again.
“I’m afraid it’s not possible. The elderly patients here are settled for the night. You will have to go and come back tomorrow during visiting hours.”
“But, please, just for one minute!” I begged at which point a voice roared “David! David! Is that you?” It was Grandad.
The nurse leapt up, banging her knee on the desk as she did so. She shot me a ‘don’t you dare say anything’ look and limped off down the ward. I followed.
She stopped by a curtained-off bed, twitched the curtain to one side and asked. “Mr Heath, are you alright?”
“No I’m bloody well not alright!”
I peered over the nurse’s shoulder and grinned at Grandad.
“David! Thank God!”
“Can I just have a moment?” I looked pleadingly at the nurse and could see her thinking. In the end she nodded.
“Be quick then.”
He was sitting up in bed, looking angry but otherwise healthy enough. I pushed some clothes aside and sat on the chair next to the bed. He grabbed my hand.
“David!” he hissed.
Confusion flashed across his face. “Ben,” he repeated. “Ben. Of course. Sorry old boy, but you look like David. He must be, oh…I know, your uncle, isn’t he? I must be going daft.” The grip on my hand tightened. “Is that why I’m here? Am I going daft? Have they put me away somewhere because I’m losing my mind?”
I squeezed his hand. “No, of course not Grandad. You slipped and bumped your head today and they want to check you for concussion and stuff. It’s just, er, routine.”
“How did I hit my head?”
“You tripped over in the woods behind your house.”
“Really?” He felt his head with his free hand. “Do you know, I don’t remember a thing about it.”
“Must be the concussion.”
“Excuse me.” It was the nurse again. “I said you had to be very quick. You must leave now.”
“Not yet, please.”
“Yes, you must. You can see your grandfather tomorrow.”
I started to stand up but Grandad tugged hard at my hand. “Don’t go Ben, don’t go. You must get me out of here!”
“Mr Heath, it is not visiting hours and I must insist that your grandson leaves.”
“No!” Grandad was looking frightened now. I couldn’t leave him.
“If I just sit quietly…” I suggested but she was having none of it.
“You must leave now. You are upsetting your grandfather.”
“No, you’re upsetting my grandfather. The whole lot of you are.” My voice was beginning to crack.
“What’s going on in there?” An old and grumpy voice from another bed joined in.
“Yes! Will you lot bloody shut up!” This complaint came from across the ward.
“You are upsetting everyone. Now go! Or I shall call security,” snapped the nurse.
I had to prise Grandad’s fingers off my hand. I promised him over and over that I would be back but I could still hear him shouting as I left the ward. I wept all the way home.