When your grandfather’s character doesn’t follow the template laid down by adverts for Werther’s Originals, it’s difficult to apply terms of affection to him. But love him I do. Like j4, I’m reminded whenever I see him that time is short, and despite his own claims to good health—you’d be healthy if you no longer had to lift my grandmother in the middle of the night—his demeanour is sufficiently frail that I just feel lucky whenever I ring him and he’s on the other end of the phone. I feel twice, triply blessed when he rings home, and my astonishment when he rings my mobile has to be seen to be believed.
I know from years ago, when he was too irascible to listen to for long, that he was a D-Day Dodger, although he always omitted the lyrics about Lady Astor. I know that he was shot twice, and one bullet fractured his spine. I know he has shrapnel in his thigh, a grey-green shadow you can see when he airs his legs in the summer (rarely these days: summers get colder as you get older, even if they really get hotter). And I remember my childhood awe at his malignant malaria—that, he swore, would present itself under his skin if he were ever close to death, and I imagined blossoms of green mould appearing hours beforehand—and wanted to discuss it with him recently when I read a review of Italy’s fight against the disease in the Guardian’s Saturday book-comic-book.
Before I picked up the phone, though, it was clear to me that it just wouldn’t be possible to talk about that any more. There’d be no point. He’s sharp as a pin in many ways—outwitting my parents and my mother’s sister—but his memory isn’t fantastic, and such memories as exist have made him run the gamut of so many emotions over the years that all that’s left is nostalgia. He’s fought so hard against that particular pain, especially these past few years since his wife’s death, that I won’t be the one to encourage an old man’s tendency towards wistfulness. So although the time is still there, hasn’t run out yet, it’s only really dead time, time without opportunity. I’ll never know for sure whether he caught malaria in Africa or in Italy; nor will I be able to dispel the nagging doubts that he might already have been laid up with a bullet in his back when he began to develop a fever. Those stories are now forever mute.
We still talk about a set range of topics, of course: the weather, trips round junk shops or into the local Morrison’s to see his eighty-plus-year-old schoolfriends, his inability to grasp how the thermostat works on his central heating. With old people, you have to stick to what you know works. I worry sometimes at how unimportant these things are, but then he wishes me good-night and God-bless, and I realise that, if I haven’t had the conversations I want, we’ve both just had an affirmation that we need.