Monday, April 21, 2008

Listen

This weekend we piled into our car bound for Devon, arms loaded with bionicles, bananas, boxes of pens, Lego, wellie boots, night-time sleepy crystals and piggy. As the road fell away behind us we passed the time with a game of I spy and spent rather a long while stuck on something beginning with 'nuh', which turned out to be 'knee', starting with 'kuh' - yeah, try explaining that one to a strong willed six year old.

We were visiting Gran, newly ensconced in Ilfracombe's finest residential home and coming to terms with what that move meant in the context of her long and well spent life. We bundled into her little attic room, all smiles and youth, bringing in the fresh air and Fin's exotically colourful drawings to scatter about for when we were no longer there. Gran put on a brave face for us and told us how kind all the nurses were. On our way out we followed her into the dining room where tea was being served. A sea of kind, pale faces followed us like sunflowers as we wandered about, weak gnarled anenomie fingers beckoning Fin as he passed them with a flick of his tail and a thousand watt smile. Gran was easily the hottest old lady in there and soon enough an elderly gentleman (who informed us he was 91 tomorrow) was dancing attendance as fast as his walking frame would allow. 'Alfred opens my marmalade for me', confided Gran, offering up her useless hands with a roll of the eyes. Fin was pronounced a very intelligent looking chap and we left Gran sitting next to Alfred, who looked as though his birthday had arrived a day early.

The next day we went back on our own for some quiet time with Gran. When we got to her room she was sitting in a chair under the window, weak afternoon sun falling on her white hair, clutching a tissue. She suddenly looked as frail as a bird, folds of a cardigan that once fit her hanging over the edge of the chair. As I sat back from our kiss hello she burst into tears and told me she was feeling much worse, frightened and in pain, she didn't know why or what it meant? Was this the beginning of the end? So I gathered up her ravaged hand and stroked the tissue paper skin while I reassured her that in my professional opinion this was not the beginning of the end. I explained what was happening and that her doctors were testing to find out how they could best help. Nick sat in an armchair and silently gave his support; this stuff doesn't come easy to him. After all, what can you say to make the approach of the inevitable any less scary? You can't - it is scary. All we can do is hold your hand Gran and tell you we'll be here when you need us.

So I asked her to tell me about her time as a nurse on the hospital train during the second world war, that ran from Southampton docks to Slough on endless trips back and forth - bringing the wounded soldiers to safety. She told us about being chosen to fly through the night with a suitcase of clothes; first a bus journey and then a dash through a mysterious hole in the hedge to the waiting train champing at the bit to puff into the night on important business. Not even her mother was allowed in on that secret. Once on the train that was where they lived, sleeping three deep in stretcher bunks and cooking all their meals onboard as they rattled to and from the docks.

As she talked, her gnarled hands flew about like moths, remembering how it felt to be that daring, how exciting it was to be young and free and doing something that really mattered. Remembering how they used to pin up their black stockings overnight to dry, only to wake and find that the soldiers had filled them with stones. Except when the soldiers were Italian prisoners of war, when they woke to find their stockings filled with flowers instead.

She remembered sitting on the train home on VE day about to be reunited with her husband who had been in the RAF, stationed in North Africa. About to see her husband after four and a half years apart and wondering if he would still love her. He did still love her. How could he not?

She talked on as the light turned gold and then pink and Nick drank it all in from his armchair across the room. And then it was late and we just had to go, no time for any more stories. We left her back in the dining room celebrating Alfred’s ninety-first year with some cake. Outside Nick turned to me and thanked me for being so good with his Gran. It was a lovely compliment but I shrugged it off a little because I didn't feel I'd done anything except listen. I didn't really do anything except be with Gran and remember that she is more than an old lady with a body that doesn't do what she wants it to anymore. I hope somebody will take the time to sit and listen to me when I grow old, and help me remember the journey.