I am sitting on the edge of the quay dropping small stones into the soupy water far below. I have a tough decision to make and these pebbles may or may not be helping.
The problem turns over and over inside my head. Do I tell her and further ruin her life or do I keep my secrets to myself and allow her life to remain only moderately ruined, as it already is?
If my stones would only produce some ever-expanding ripples in the dark water then I am sure I could draw some clever analogy between that effect and the concentric relatedness of life’s ineptitudes. But they don’t, they simply plop onto the oily black surface and then vanish without a trace. Perhaps there is a useful analogy in that too but for the moment it escapes me.
A little over nine months ago, my last grandfather entered the water from this very quay – and drowned. A subsequent inquest found this to be an accidental death and, although our family accepted this verdict with considerable relief, none of us really believed it. For forty years, you see, Granddad Noel had worked these docks, unloading timber and coal and whatever else had steered its way up the narrow channel. He knew the quay edge as well as any of us knows our hearts and he was as firmly rooted to that dock as were the huge concrete windlasses that mushroomed along the brim.
It was our family’s secret but firm belief that Granddad had deliberately thrown himself from the deepwater quay on the day before his seventy second birthday. None of us had any idea why.
Our shock at this awful event was as great as would naturally be expected. In our minds, we had all consigned both Granny and Granddad to nature’s gradual deterioration towards infirmity and eventual death. Their four daughters, including my mother, had steeled themselves for the years when the care and dedication which they had received as children would have to be at least partly repaid. The prospect that one or other of the grandparents would be left alone for a time was considered but nobody foresaw that the rift would be caused by anything other than old age and cruel nature.
As it was, the loss of her husband tore flesh and bone from my grandmother as surely as if she had fallen down a stairs or succumbed to a virulent disease. The day that Granddad’s sealed coffin was lowered into the clay marked the beginning of her own inexorable descent to join him there. A descent which still continues and which has every sign of ending soon enough.
It was nine months after the funeral and our lives had returned to relative normality. My twice-weekly visits to Granny kept Granddad in my mind but not prominently so. In my busy and insulated routine, Granny became a gentle chore for me. Her grief and deterioration was a given – it saddened but did not surprise me.
This all changed last Saturday. I had called to Granny earlier than normal because I had a lunch date with an old school friend. As she made the tea, I opened the biscuits and prepared myself for thirty minutes of gentle grilling and familiar stories from a week of threadbare routine. It was to be as it always was. Except this time, it wasn’t.
Granny arrived at the table with her stainless steel teapot. She trembled minutely and then she smashed the pot down onto the table. This was the equivalent of a Hydrogen bomb being dropped on the little terraced house. The vessel landed with such a crash as may never have been heard in this house before and the tea slopped out of the lid and drenched everything on the heavy tablecloth.
I leaped to my feet. The table top was a brown dripping mess of skewed crockery and damp lottery tickets.
“Granny,” I pleaded, “For God’s sake what’s wrong?”
She broke down then, her arms pitched tautly by her side, her face to the ceiling.
“I killed him,” she cried, “I killed your grandfather.”
A twisted image of granny came into my head. I saw her sneaking up behind him and pushing him over the edge and into the deep water. I shook it away.
“He fell in. It wasn’t your fault.”
She shook her head vehemently.
“That day he went out, I had his heart annoyed. Do this, do that. I wouldn’t let him off.”
It is true that Granny had been increasingly hard on him as the years advanced. Granddad’s greatest pleasure had always been to sit with the newspaper spread out on the kitchen table, poring over every page in the greatest of detail. This intent reading ritual has been ever-present in all the years I had known Granddad but it had become more protracted in the latter part of his life. One oddity of his avid consumption of the daily newspaper was that he would not enter into discussion about the stories he so dedicatedly scanned. Only much later in the day would he make himself available for topical discussion and opinion of any kind. It always seemed that he demanded time to digest and analyse what he had learned before passing any judgement upon it and I for one saw this as a highly commendable attribute.
Not so dear Granny. Her resentment of this time wasted over the minutia of external affairs manifested itself in manic cleaning and general irritated hovering in the general vicinity of the kitchen table. Occasionally Granddad would acknowledge her pique with a gentle, “Sod off, I’m reading,” but generally he ignored her completely.
Still and all, it was hard to see how Granny’s relatively low level aggravations could compel the old man to the very edge of his own life. It simply did not seem correct and I said as much to Granny.
But she was having none of it.
“You weren’t here. I forced him to go out in the rain when he didn’t want to and I gave him a list of things to do and each and every one of them was nothing less than poisonous to him.”
Strong words indeed. I was fascinated by what these poisonous duties might have been. She shuffled to the sideboard and produced a flaccid yellow sheet of notepaper. She pushed it across the table to me.
“That is the list I gave him. It was still in his pocket”.
I looked at the paper. Bread, Washing up liquid, Garaty, Eyes, Mass card.
“What’s a ‘Garaty’?”, I asked.
“Mr. Garaty, the television repair man,” she indicated to the incongruous large set in the corner. “He’d had it for ten days at that stage, I told Michael to go up and put a rocket under him to get it fixed. He hated pressing people”
“And mass card?” I prompted.
“For poor Mrs Dobbs in number forty two,” she sniffed, “He hated going to the priest’s house too.”
“The straw that broke the camel’s back, I’d say,” granny looked to the ceiling in anguish, “His eyes had been getting worse and worse. He’d sit and stare at the damn paper for hours and get nothing from it. The last fortnight was the worst. It was clear he needed glasses but would he go? I told him to go and get it seen-to or not to bother ever coming back… and look what happened.”
Granny was a bit calmer when I left her. I’d borrowed the little piece of flotsam notepaper. I thought it might be helpful to try to retrace Granddad’s steps on his last day. As it seemed that the question of eyesight was the most fraught one, I started with the opticians.
There was only two in town and one was a hyper modern outlet which favoured angular and compressed fashion statements over actual spectacles. I figured Granddad, if pushed, would favour the older, more traditional establishment so I went there first. In truth, I did not expect to learn that my grandfather had actually been to get his eyes tested on the day he died. I tended to agree with Granny that the option of not coming home at all had somehow presented itself as the most attractive. I was surprised therefore to find that, not only did the portly woman behind the counter entertain my unusual query, but she remembered old Granddad’s visit very well indeed.
“A lovely old gentleman. How is he?”, she asked, which frankly put me at a bit of a loss.
“Oh,” she said, taking that on board and brightening again, “That would explain why he never called back for his prescription.”
“So he did get his eyes tested then?”
“Oh yes, quite weak in the left, not so bad in the right, a little trouble with the Snellen but that’s not unusual in a man of his vintage.”
I wasn’t really that interested in the technical details of Granddad’s visual impairment. I was much more concerned with his demeanour so I asked after it.
“He was fine really. A little embarrassed about putting us to trouble but that’s what we’re here for isn’t it?”
Indeed it was. I left her with a polite thank you. She had one more little surprise on the way out.
“My regards to your grandmother,” She shouted after me. “She taught me in the convent school, you know.”
“Yes. I only recognised her name when I was filling out your granddad’s details. I… suppose he won’t need the prescription now.”
Damn silly question but perhaps there was a subtle point to it.
“Is there an account? I could….”
She smiled. “Oh dear me no, he settled up in cash on the day, said he’d pick out frames when he came back. Sad really.”
It was sad and all rather unenlightening. I went off to find Mr. Garaty.
Ted Garaty worked out of his garden shed and I knew him quite well from a variety of radios, amplifiers and, latterly, digital satellite receivers which had gone on the blink, been deposited and eventually returned in some varied states of repair.
He looked surprised to see me as I made the extraneous bell over his garage door ring. He looked around furtively as if to identify what piece of kit he had neglected to repair for me this time.
He looked relieved when he found out that I only wanted to ask after Granddad.
“I was shocked to hear that he had practically gone straight from me to the water, so to speak, no offence intended… There was nothing out of the ordinary, his telly wasn’t ready and I told him it might be another few days before I got to it. He did seem annoyed all right but when I asked him he just said something about herself having his heart annoyed.”
This was not good news, lending credence as it did to Granny’s own theory that she had been the primary cause of his demise. I thanked Ted and made to go.
“There was one other thing,” said Ted.
I looked back. My many years of watching ‘Colombo’ had taught me that these ‘one last things’ often held the key to something or other.
“There had been a mention of him in the paper. Your granddad. Nothing much, just a little bit about the closure of the weigh-station down the quay and a reference to some of the men who used to work there. I showed it to him – it’s nice to see your name in print sometimes. I handed him the paper and asked whether he had spotted it. He took it and looked it over and then handed it back and left.”
“Didn’t he say anything?” I asked.
“Not much, something along the lines of, “They’re all the same”, then off he went.”
“”They’re all the same?” Are you sure that was it?”
Ted thought a moment.
“I think that was it all right. He seemed surprisingly annoyed that his name was in there at all.”
Then the bell went again and an angry looking lady came in so I took my leave.
The parish priest had not seen Granddad that day. This was not a surprise since no mass card had been found on him. Along with the washing up liquid and the bread it became one of three errands which were not run.
I walked reluctantly back to Granny’s house, recounting my mornings investigation. Where did it all leave me? Granddad had visited the opticians and the telly repair man and he evidently had no trouble at either… I stopped in my tracks… wait… he had had some trouble – the lady had said exactly that and I had let it pass. “Some trouble,” she had said, “some trouble with…” what?
Some trouble with what?
I ran back to the opticians shop. It was near closing time and the lady did not seem quite so pleased to see me this time. I was breathless when I arrived at her counter and could not express myself as clearly as I might have liked.
“Some trouble with what?”
This was all I could manage to say and I and feared it was sufficiently incoherent as to totally confuse the lady but it seemed she understood me well enough as she immediately launched into a profuse apology.
“I shouldn’t have said anything, I’m so sorry, I spoke out of turn.”
I didn’t care a hoot for speaking out of turn. Mostly, I wanted the word she had used. That odd word.
“Please, what was it you said that he had trouble with?”
The lady hesitated and it seemed for that long moment that she would not tell me the word I needed.
The voice came from the back of the store. I turned to find a surprisingly young man standing in the doorway. He stepped forward with his hand outstretched.
“I’m Peter, this is my fathers shop but he’s no longer able to… the eyesight would you believe?”
His gentle joke went over my head. There was only one question in my world.
“Please, what is a ‘Snellen’?” I asked.
He took my elbow and led me to the back room.
“Come on”, he said, I’ll show you.
So now here I am sitting on the edge of the quay dropping small stones into the soupy water far below. I know now why my grandfather died and it is a painful knowing. But am I a better grandson by sharing my knowledge with my grandmother or do I do better to simply hold my peace. The thick brine does not seem to know and neither do I.
Peter the optician had sat me in the chair where he tests all his patients and dimmed the lights. He indicated to the chart on the opposite wall and asked my to read the top line. I did so.
“That chart,” he said, “Is called a Snellen chart.”
Then at last I thought I knew.
“He couldn’t see it,” I said, “You had to tell my Granddad that he was going blind.”
“Quite the contrary, he had very good eyesight for a man of his years. No he could see it fine.”
“He couldn’t read it.”
I stared at him a moment then couldn’t help but laugh.
“Nonsense,” I said, “The man had done nothing but read for all of his life.”
In reply, Peter produced another chart from a drawer beside my chair. It showed a series of letters ‘E’ turned upside down and sideways.
“This is an alternative chart,” he explained, “We keep a number of them, for children or learning disadvantaged people… or people like your grandfather who unfortunately never learned to read.”
The truth was slow to sink in – a lifetime of deception revealed.
As I struggled with the revelation, it became clear that Peter was also very upset.
“When Nora told me that he had killed himself… I was getting ready to come and see you… I feel that I…,” he stopped, unable to continue.
“No,” I said, “It sounds like you were kind and gentle with him. It sounds like you were really great. But Nora knew my Granny from school and he must have known that. He must have known that his ‘secret’ would be revealed at last.”
There are no more stones to throw in. It is time to go home. I can’t help but mourn for my proud granddad. All his years of staring at a meaningless jumble of characters on a mocking broadsheet. All his gleaning of news from the television and pretending it came from the printed word. All of his deception. My saddest thought is if only he had spent half of this energy on learning to read, how fulfilled he could have been.
I think I might tell her after all.
I think she deserves to know.
© Ken Armstrong