I remember visiting my grandmother better than most things from when I was 14 or so. When everything was shit. I have a vivid memory of her standing at the stove mashing red kidney beans and anchovies into tomatoes, making a sauce for pasta. Draining the pasta in an old colander with no handle, flipping it into a bowl. Pouring a little olive oil then scooping the sauce out of the pan. Setting the steaming bowl down on the table in front of me. Handing me a fork. She did it all so quickly it seemed I hardly had time to sit down and adjust my chair. “There you are Tony, that’ll put some flesh on your bones.”
While I ate she rinsed the pan and the colander and put them aside to be washed later. Then she made herself a cup of coffee and sat to watch me finish everything to the very last mouthful.
I was always so hungry, could never remember my last meal, though sense would tell me I must have had lunch, or breakfast. Hollow legs and growing pains, Mum said when I groaned in the night from the pain in my legs, if she said anything at all. I didn’t know why growing should hurt, unless it was that I wanted so badly to grow up my body hurt with the effort. My grandmother didn’t laugh when I told her, only nodded and looked a bit grim.
“I don’t know about these growing pains,” she said, “Seems strange to me.” Then she got on with whatever she was cooking for me. Something quick because I was always hungry and often in a hurry, on my way to basketball or going to hang out with Jamie. Gran never asked me why I visited, just smiled and let me in and cooked me something quick.
“Here you are. You’ve got time for this. It’ll see you through till tea.”
I wondered sometimes if she guessed there might not be any tea, that I might get home and everything would be gone, cleaned away, nothing left on a plate in the oven, maybe some bread in the bin. She didn’t ask questions, just made me pasta and sauce, or a big pile of pancakes, or even a couple of chops. She never seemed surprised to see me, or annoyed; nothing like that, just let me in with a smile and made me something quick to eat.
She usually looked as if she’d been working in her garden, long grey hair falling out of a ponytail, leaves and bits of twig on her pants, dirt on her shoes. Her hands were always clean though. I checked, worried she would handle the food with dirty hands. Sometimes she was wearing a big old hat when she opened the door and I knew she’d hurried inside so I wouldn’t think she was out. She never was out though, except once and then she left a note on the door in case I came, telling me to let myself in, there was soup on the stove and a loaf of bread on the table.
I had a key. She gave it to me early on. She said, “You never know when this might come in handy.” I didn’t say anything. I liked having the key and made sure I always carried it. The time she left the note it turned out she’d gone to the hospital with her neighbour, a very old bloke, because he fell and broke his hip. I did go in and I ate the soup and bread but it wasn’t the same. I rinsed the bowl afterwards but I didn’t visit again for a few days because I didn’t want to find another note on the door.
I always felt better after I’d eaten at her place, whatever she cooked for me. She would touch me on the shoulder as I ate. “There you go, Tony.” A pat on the shoulder. Sometimes I was scared I’d cry if she left her hand there, but she never did. Just a pat before she reached for the coffee pot. She liked real coffee, never drank the instant stuff, and the smell would fill the kitchen. It made me feel like I wanted some, too, even though I never drank it back then.
I remember at the time thinking she was so old. She would have been in her fifties I suppose, but old to me at 14, with her grey hair and wrinkles around her eyes. She lived on her own for as long as I knew her, from when I was 13 and we had moved from Sydney to Melbourne. I didn’t know my grandfather, her husband, and I don’t know what happened to him. She never said and I didn’t ask. Not because I couldn’t, I just wasn’t interested. She never talked about my father either though she must have known where he was and why.
We moved from Sydney because my mother said she couldn’t bear being in the same town as him, even if he wasn’t in Sydney but down in Cooma where she said they put people like him. I didn’t know what she meant. He was my father. I had to pack up my stuff and leave my school and my best friend and all the kids in the street and move to Melbourne. After a while, school was OK.
I made friends with Jamie and got onto the basketball team. I made sure I had something to do most days after school so I didn’t have to go home.
I don’t remember Gran and me talking much though sometimes she asked how I was going at school and remembered when I had a big game coming up. She never asked me questions like the teachers and the social workers and the police did, all looking at me like they already knew the answers and just wanted me to agree. I just wanted them to go away. Losers. I still had the Xbox and a stack of games Dad bought when he and I played together and I got into them. He was good. Really fast. After he was gone I tried to get to his score but never made it.
If I’d been able to stay I would have gone to her spare room, lain on the bed with the Mexican rug, pulled the rug over me, and gone to sleep for a very long time. But I had to go home eventually. My mother never knew I visited and would have gone ballistic if she’d found out. She never had anything nice to say about my grandmother, blamed her somehow for what happened even though it was my sister who caused all the trouble. I don’t know how she thought my grandmother had anything to do with it. So I couldn’t stay.
I found out where she lived by accident. Before we moved, I found a letter from my dad. It had been addressed to me but Mum had hidden it. I was looking for something, I don’t know what, but I found the letter and read it and in it he said he hadn’t done anything wrong, that it was all a mistake.
He wrote that he loved me and my sister and he wrote that my grandmother lived in Melbourne and here was her address. I copied it down then a while after we moved I found out she lived close to my school and one day I went to her house. I didn’t phone or anything, I just went and when she answered the door, I told her my name. She stood dead still and stared at me for a long time. My heart was beating so hard I couldn’t say anything. And finally she said, “Well Tony, you’d better come in.”
So I went in and her house was cool and sort of dark inside and we walked down a hallway to the back of the house and went into the kitchen and there was a big kitchen table. She said, “Sit down Tony. I’ll bet you are hungry.” And suddenly I was starving. I felt like I hadn’t eaten for days and days. She looked at me a bit more and then started cooking. It was pancakes that first time. I ate about eight of them, couldn’t get enough. I only stopped when she ran out of batter. “Well Tony,’ she said, ‘I’m glad you like pancakes. I like them too.” I remember nodding and feeling like I wanted to curl up and fall asleep at the table.
I went to her house one day, a very hot day I remember, on my way to the pool. Her door was open. That was unusual but I didn’t think much about it. Just went inside and there were all these people, men in suits and women with handkerchiefs. They were all in the sitting room. Someone was crying loudly. Everyone stopped talking and turned to look at me. I just stood there and one of the men said, “And who are you?”
I said, “Where’s Gran?”
“Gran?” said a man in a suit, “You’re Peg’s grandson?”
“What’s your name, then?” he said.
“Tony,” I replied, then said: “Where is Gran?”
He stared at me for a moment and someone behind him said, “He takes after her Peter, look, he’s got Peg’s eyes.”
The man came over and stood very close to me.
“I’m very sorry, son, but your Gran died this morning.”
He went to put his arm around my shoulder but I pushed him off.
“I don’t believe you. You’re lying.” My face was on fire. I wanted to punch him.
“I’m really sorry, Tony, but it’s true. She was working in the front garden and she collapsed. She died instantly. One of the neighbours was walking past and called the ambulance.”
Other people started to speak but they sounded as though they were under water. Words were muffled, disjointed; tragedy, sudden heart attack, in her garden. Doing what she loved. Someone started sobbing. I turned and ran out of the house. A man yelled after me, “The funeral’s the day after tomorrow. St Aidan’s,” but I kept running. It was the day before my 15th birthday.
If she hadn’t died, maybe I could have gone to live with her and slept in the bed in her spare room. Had tea with her every night. Had coffee in the morning. Learned how to make it in the pot on the stove. I used to imagine moving in with her and leaving my mum and my sister to their life together. After we moved Mum turned right off me, started to say I reminded her of him. If I walked into the room when she and my sister were watching television they cuddled up together and turned their backs on me. Mum always
liked my sister more than me anyway, and it got worse after Dad went away. The one time I asked when he was coming home Mum screamed, “That pervert, that bastard, what do you want to have anything to do with him for?”
I stayed away as much as I could. Went into my room, played the games and looked up stuff on the internet.
Daydreamed about living with Gran.
On the day of the funeral I went to the church but didn’t go inside. I couldn’t believe she was really dead. Later that day, I went to her house and let myself in. The house was cold and smelled empty. I walked into the kitchen and sat in my usual chair. There was silence. I put my head on the table and fell asleep.
When I woke the light was fading. I picked up the coffee pot from the stove and went into the spare room. I wrapped the pot in the Mexican rug, walked down the hall, dropped my key on the floor just inside the door and left, pulling the door tight behind me.
AUTHOR LYNNE GEARY
Lynne Geary grew up in Melbourne, spent years living overseas, and moved back to Melbourne in 2003. She has been writing since retiring 18 years ago. “Writing to a deadline is a great spur, but I spend a long time re-working stories, trying different ‘voices’ and different themes,” she says. “I decided that, as a mature-aged writer, I would write about anything I wanted to; there’s a freedom that comes with ageing.”