This delightful short story by Penelope Alexander takes place around a favourite landmark.
My granddaughter has a dilemma. Can I give her the right advice?
GRAN!” Charlotte’s voice is as breezy as ever. “Can we meet up? I’d like to come and stay with you for the weekend.” “Of course, darling!” I wonder if she wants to talk, as we used to when she was younger. It’s hard to tell over the phone.
Although she dearly loves her mum and dad, I know they don’t always see eye to eye.
Charlotte is her own woman these days, of course, but I’m still honoured when she thinks I can help.
“Where shall we meet?” My granddaughter lives near her parents on the other side of the city.
“Our usual café, near the bus station? If I get there first, I’ll order the cheese toasties.”
I then add silently, “And after lunch perhaps we’ll take a walk down Wine Street.”
Walking down Wine
Street is family-speak for having a heart-to-heart whenever a knotty problem arises.
We don’t always literally take a stroll through the centre of the city, of course. A pleasant chat over tea in the shade of the apple tree in my back garden does perfectly well as a substitute.
But this time, I think I will suggest to Charlotte that after lunch we should brave the steep slope of Union Street.
From there it’s just a right turn and a lovely walk towards the old crossroads.
At the café, Charlotte doesn’t notice me straight away.
She’s tucked her hair (as long as mine used to be when I married her late grandfather) behind one ear to study the pages of a magazine.
My granddaughter has this ability to look at home wherever she is, but I notice she’s nervously smoothing her hair behind one ear.
A worrying thought occurs. Both Sue and
Trevor – Charlotte’s mum and dad – have demanding jobs and my son-in-law is often away.
It’s a pity if Charlotte hasn’t managed to talk with them, but (I shake myself a little) in that case, it’s just as well I’m here.
The delicious smell of tea and toast wafts past and Charlotte glances up.
“Gran!” Her expression changes; brown eyes sparkle as she envelops me in a hug.
I hug her back, wondering where all the years have gone since she was a round-faced infant with her hair in red-checked ribbons.
“Lovely to see you, sweetheart!” I say, sitting next to her.
“The food and drink are on their way,” Charlotte says. “I ordered Earl Grey for you. I hope that’s OK.”
“Thanks. We could eat here, and then,” I pause, “go for a walk down Wine Street?”
Charlotte grins, recognising the old family saying.
“Yes, I’d be glad if we could talk.”
“I’m all ears,” I say, knowing this phrase makes her laugh.
Charlotte slides me a happy, sideways glance.
“Can we watch the Jacks afterwards?”
“Of course, as long as we’ve got the timing right!”
Four roadways meet near the old centre of the city, above where Bristol Bridge crosses the Avon, and Wine Street is one of them.
On the stroke of every hour people gather where once an old market cross stood.
They tilt their heads to watch the mediaeval “quarter-jacks” – two mechanical figures in bright-red coats – lift their
striking hammers high up on the tower of Christchurch.
“You always loved to see the bells rung!” I say reminiscently.
Charlotte certainly isn’t a child these days. I long to ask questions, but I decide I should allow her to set the pace.
The aroma of toasted cheese engulfs us as our sandwiches arrive at our table.
“Let’s eat first,” I say, with a smile.
Halfway up Union Street Charlotte slips her arm through mine.
“Helping your old gran up the hill?” I tease.
“It’s a bit steep for me here!” she replies with a grin.
The leaves on the roadside trees are light green and the air smells sweet. I shake out my scarf, playing for time.
“Gran, I hope you don’t mind, but Oliver said the best thing would be to talk to you.”
Oliver is Charlotte’s handsome and very caring boyfriend. We all like him. They’ve been together for some time, and I realise I haven’t asked after him. “How is Oliver?” My granddaughter steps away and gathers her long hair in one swift movement, securing it expertly with a plastic clip.
“To be honest, things aren’t so smooth.”
I frown, trying to frame the next question.
“I take it you’re still together?”
Her lovely young face softens.
“Of course we are. He’s so . . . nice, Gran.” “Uh-huh.”
Nice can be such a non-description. Nice is a cupcake, something small and sweet, perhaps. Not what I’d say about the dashing Oliver.
I might have called my Joe stubborn, kind, loving, good-looking, annoying – he was all those things.
But nice? I think he and I might have shared a joke about that!
“He’s sharp and clever and funny and kind, too,” she adds, as if she’s read my thoughts. “You know how much I love him!”
“Does he say he loves you?”
“All the time,” she answers steadily.
I pat her hand.
“I know, darling,” I say softly. “I felt just like that when Grandpa Joe proposed.” A sudden thought strikes me. “Has Oliver . . .?”
Charlotte bites her lip. “Yes, he has.”
I wait, hoping she’ll tell me what her reply was, but she doesn’t.
“Mum said you and Grandpa waited a while before you married. Is that right?” Charlotte asks instead.
“One year and one hundred days.”
Joe used to say, with a wink, that I was worth it.
“Wow!” Charlotte says, blowing out her cheeks on a huge sigh.
“It wasn’t unusual then, and anyway, we were far younger than you two,” I tell her.
“We still saw each other every day. But we had no money. We needed to save up, you see.”
Charlotte’s eyes are full of tears.
“Oliver insists nothing matters as long as we’re together.”
“But what do you say?” “I didn’t know what to say. You see, he wants to stay put and get a job instead of taking up this offer of further studies. We had a big row over it.”
“I should think you did!” I said, stopping in my tracks. “You don’t want him to regret missing an opportunity like that in a few years’ time.”
Charlotte’s shoulders slump. We’ve reached a bench, and by unspoken agreement we take a seat beneath the trees.
I take her hand.
“I know you’re only trying to think of what’s best for him as well as you. I’m sure he’s doing the same. That’s what loving is all about, isn’t it?”
Charlotte nods silently. “You can still be together while he studies, can’t you?” I ask. “Take time to get to know each other even better?”
“Not if he has to go abroad to study next year,” she says miserably.
“That’s what he’s planning?”
“Yes! He wants me to go with him.”
I begin to understand her problem.
“Let me get this straight. You’ve definitely said no, not because you don’t love him, but because you don’t want to move away?” Charlotte nods.
“He can’t understand why I’ve refused. But with all my ties here, and everything as it is at home, I just don’t feel the time is right.”
I squeeze her hand within both of mine. What does she mean by “everything at home”?
“So what’s really worrying you, sweetheart?”
The poor girl is mopping the tears from her face again. I hand her a fresh packet of tissues.
“Listen. There’s nothing in this world that can’t be sorted by a good discussion. On the other hand . . .”
I hesitate, afraid of offering bad advice.
“On the other hand, perhaps this is exactly the right time for you two – because Oliver needs you. You know that’s why he’s even thinking of giving up a chance like this, don’t you?”
Charlotte turns towards me.
“That’s the problem, Gran! Because, well, you know how it is at home right now, with Dad often away and Mum always stressed. I feel I shouldn’t move so far because Mum and Dad might need me, too.”
A small silence falls while I work out exactly what Charlotte has just said. A pigeon flies down and settles on the pavement near our feet.
My daughter and her husband have had ups and downs in their marriage, it’s true, but they’ve always remained close enough to work things out for themselves.
Luckily, I stop myself from replying to Charlotte with the first thought that comes into my mind: that her parents are not her responsibility.
Instead, I tell her what a lovely, caring daughter she is to feel as she does. I reassure her that her parents’ marriage will survive. That nobody wants her to cast herself as the family referee.
Finally, blinking, she nods and gently frees her hand from mine.
We stand up, and she dries her eyes. Slowly, we walk arm in arm along
Wine Street towards the crossroads.
I glance at my watch. I think we’ll get there at just the right moment to hear the bells ring.
“Hi, Gran!” Charlotte, at home once more, has telephoned to thank me for having her at the weekend.
“It was lovely to see you,” I say. “Don’t leave it so long next time, and bring Oliver, too.”
“Thanks. Gran, I told Mum all about our . . . chat.”
“And what did your mum say, Charlotte?”
There’s an unmistakeable chuckle in her voice as she replies.
“Actually, she said while I was away she and Dad took the chance to have a heart-to-heart of their own! They both agreed they’d been working too hard and needed to do some adjusting.”
“Good for them.”
At the other end of the line, Charlotte clears her throat.
“Especially as there’ll be a wedding to arrange in the not-too-distant future.”
“Just what I was thinking, sweetheart. And speaking of weddings, wasn’t it grand to hear those city bells ring?”
“Just like the old days,” Charlotte agrees. “I love those quarter-jacks!”
I laugh, and tell her I was glad we were there, on the hour, and saw the full chime. Our timing was exactly right.