The Things We Do For Love
A grandad is remembered fondly in this endearing complete story by Eva Jordan.
A poignant story by Eva Jordan
GRANDAD BERT was a big man, tall with broad shoulders and a loud voice. He loved me, I know, and not just because he called me Queenie and gave me money for the ice-cream van. Reaching well above six feet when standing to attention like the drill sergeant he’d once been, he towered above mere mortals.
A giant amongst men, just like the ones I discovered in the richly illustrated books of fairy tales and mythology of my wide-eyed, imaginative childhood.
However, unlike the giant at the top of Jack’s beanstalk or David’s Goliath, Grandad, although formidable at times, was more akin to Robin Hood’s Little John – a gentle giant with a raucous laugh, close by when needed and solid as a rock.
Bert came from a strange place, though, and one I struggled to understand at times. He came from the past, a country as foreign to me as any exotic-sounding realm or kingdom my small fingers would stab at when we studied his dog-eared atlas together.
Nestled upon his knee, his large but coarse work-wearied hands holding me safe, I listened in awe, transfixed as he described some of the far-flung places his Army career had carried him to.
“I’ve been to places you wouldn’t believe, our Queenie,” he’d say.
Queenie wasn’t my real name. My real name was Louise – or Lou to my mum and Louie to my friends – but I was always Queenie to Grandad Bert.
“I’ve seen the pyramids in Egypt and travelled by camel across the Sahara desert, and I’ve even seen that great wall of China.
“Did yar know yar can see that wall from space, Queenie?” he’d say. “Space, though,” he repeated, looking up thoughtfully, “that’s one place I haven’t bin to.” His shoulders heaved up and down as he laughed.
He spoke of visiting the Kykkos Monastery, situated high among the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus, where purple-robed monks wandered amongst mosaic walls of exploding colour.
And, when deployed in Germany, he described being present during the construction of the Berlin Wall, or “Berliner Mauer” as he would sometimes shout out in a comedic German accent.
“You weren’t even a twinkle in yer ol’ dad’s eye when that monstrosity went up,” he’d say, shaking his head.
I never asked Grandad to explain, because the tone of that big laugh of his assumed I knew, but I never really understood how or why I must have eventually made my dad’s eyes twinkle.
“Terrible, it was,” Grandad Bert continued. “Families separated, torn apart overnight by that thing of segregation.”
Then he’d sigh heavily and stare straight ahead and I knew just for a few seconds I’d disappeared from Grandad’s view and he was looking at life through his sad eyes again.
EVENTUALLY the watery glaze that had corrupted his sight would lift. “I dunno, our Queenie, the things people do to one another, eh?” Then he’d look at me and smile. I knew better than to ask what he meant.
I sat with Grandad in November 1989 and watched as the fall of that concrete barrier was televised across the world. As sledgehammering and chisel-chipping individuals hacked into that ever-decreasing barricade, Grandad looked on and smiled.
On very rare occasions, Grandad Bert talked about his chums from the infamous Changi prison in Singapore.
He jested and laughed about failed escape plans with friends that had strange names like Freddy the Frogman, Dangerous Dave or Eddy the Egg Man.
His craggy face always cracked a huge smile whenever he recalled some small moment of victory, usually won through the cunning and guile of both himself and his captured comrades.
However, although his mouth always smiled when he recanted these stories, I noticed that his eyes never did – his eyes were always sad.
It was only when I was much older that I finally understood Changi was not the adult playground Grandad Bert had made it seem for my childish ears, and the pain and suffering I had glimpsed from time to time behind those soft brown eyes was indeed very real.
Grandad Bert was also a proud man – a man’s man – much to my mother’s annoyance at times.
He was popular and always more at ease with other men. He came from a land where men and women had clearly defined roles.
“Housework is women’s work,” I’d often hear him remark, or “A woman’s place is in the home” was another favourite, which I’m sure he said just to induce that sucking-onlemons, pursed-lip expression such statements always provoked in my mother.
Mum hailed from a place called the Swinging Sixties, a place that founded the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the mini skirt and the contraceptive pill, but also the place where the women’s liberation movement was arguably at its most powerful.
Inasmuch as Grandad’s past was alien to me, so, too, the new world his daughter became a part of was to him.
The women’s liberation movement was as foreign to Grandad Bert as it is to my own daughter, who is one of a generation now reaping its rewards.
Grandad Bert believed in moving forward, and although he said we must always learn from the past, he said we should respect it as well.
So, although Grandad Bert and Nana Pat came from a place that was different from the one I knew, I understood it worked for them.
Grandad kept the garden whilst Nana Pat kept the house, and when Nana cooked her famous Sunday roasts or brewed tea in their tired but homely kitchen, Grandad cooked his infamous home brew in his shed at the bottom of the garden.
Grandad played darts; Nana knitted. Grandad wore whiskers and Nana wore make-up, and as far as Grandad Bert was concerned the only men that had anything to do with make-up were stage actors.
Real men, in Grandad’s opinion, had no place messing about with make-up.
Imagine, then, my surprise, when visiting Nana and Grandad one afternoon, to see Grandad bent over Nana’s feet, delicately painting her toenails.
Mum and I had stopped by on an impromptu visit to give Nana a bunch of flowers “to cheer her up”, Mum had said.
I was somewhat confused because Nana didn’t seem sad. She always had a lovely smile for me whenever I saw her.
My grandfather had very strict ideas about
men’s and women’s roles in the world. But sometimes people can
surprise you . . .
I did notice she had lost a lot of weight quite suddenly, though, and she also seemed to have trouble bending over.
Her smiley face often contorted into what I was pretty sure resembled pain whenever she tried.
NANA also seemed to suddenly start having more visitors than usual. Adults wearing glassy eyes and big, false smiles would breeze in, some with gifts, others with funny stories, and all would sit with her for a while.
When they felt they had outstayed their welcome they’d get up to leave, still smiling, promising to come again soon.
But before they reached the front door and were out of Nana’s sight their smiles would vanish. They would talk in hushed voices to Mum and Dad and shake their heads gravely.
I’ll never forget that afternoon, f inding Grandad sitting with Nana, just the two of them, and Grandad painting Nana’s toenails.
Nana was sitting upright, her head propped against cushions and pillows, her legs stretched out across a worn and faded leather sofa.
It was a warm afternoon and a lone breeze gently lifted the net curtains of an open window.
Grandad Bert sat at the other end of the sofa holding one of Nana’s tiny feet in his big hands.
He wore an expression of intense concentration as one hand held the heel of Nana’s foot while the other one balanced a tiny brush between his large thumb and foref inger.
Mum and I stood for a moment, fascinated, silently staring. They hadn’t heard us come in and Nana Pat and Grandad Bert were laughing together.
Then Grandad caught sight of us, turning his head in our direction as knowing eyes peered over reading glasses balancing on his large nose.
He seemed flustered for a moment, his weather-beaten, lined face suddenly slightly ruddy in appearance.
“Roses!” Nana exclaimed as I passed her the bouquet of flowers Mum had purchased. “Beautiful red roses to match my red lipstick and toenails.”
Mum bent down and kissed Nana’s forehead before venturing down to the other end of the sofa to look at Grandad’s handiwork. She raised her eyes and seemed to smirk at Grandad. “Nice work, Dad,” Mum praised. Grandad coughed to clear a throat that didn’t need clearing.
“Yeah, well,” Grandad Bert began in a voice that suddenly seemed much deeper than usual, “make yersel’ useful and make us a cuppa.”
As Mum and I busied ourselves in the kitchen making tea and biscuits, I noticed Mum wore a pleased look of both triumph and surprise.
IT wasn’t too long after that day that Nana passed away, then Grandad followed her a few years later. That day always stayed with me, though.
I knew, despite the things Grandad had endured during his life, it took a lot for him to paint Nana’s nails.
He was a proud man, but Grandad Bert also knew Nana was a proud woman who took a great deal of pride in her appearance.
I told my husband about the time Mum and I caught Grandad painting Nana’s toenails, so imagine my surprise one day, when I was heavily pregnant, unable to bend down and feeling particularly unglamorous, when Richie, my husband, painted my toenails to cheer me up.
“I dunno,” he joked. “The things we do for love.”