‘Come in, Dad.’
The old man pushed the door closed behind him, folded himself down to my level and looked at me with grey eyes that crinkled at the edges like crunched up paper.
I touched the hairy caterpillar that marched on the spot above his mouth with a finger.
Mummy rested her hand on my shoulder. ‘This is your Grandfather. Say hello.’
‘Hello. What’s a grandfather?’
He held my hand as we walked to the kitchen. I don’t remember another man being in our kitchen.
‘Mother will have my hide, Joyce; if she finds out I visited.’
‘I’m still the black sheep?’
He sighed and lifted his cup. ‘Cheers.’
Mummy stared into her cup then raised it to his. ‘Cheers, Dad. Thanks for coming.’ She took a deep breath. ‘I know I’ve let you and Mother down.’
‘Now lassie, none of this maudlin talk. What’s done is done. The war.... It’s changed everything – you and Paddy with three children and not married, to begin with.’
The man sighed.
Sitting under the man’s chair was a dark blue bag with a thick white rope pulled tight at the top. It smelt delicious.
‘Have you got a Christmas in there?’
He laughed; a deep sound that shook his thin body. ‘No, lassie, Christmas doesn’t come in a duffel bag.’ He toyed with his cup then gently said, ‘What are you teaching her, Joyce?’
‘I can’t, Dad. God and I….’ She spread out her hands.
‘Aye, truth is you’re in a bit of a mess, but God’s more merciful than your Mother, love.’
Mummy lit a cigarette. The end glowed brightly. Her lipstick left a red circle on the white cigarette paper; bright red like her long fingernails.
‘Paddy had a bad time in the orphanage with the nuns. He won’t have any religion in the house.’ She nodded towards me. ‘That one was vaccinated with a gramophone needle. I don’t want a scene.’
‘Peace at all cost. Look where that got this country.’
He ruffled my hair and pulled a huge book from his bag. Grinning, he handed it to Mummy. ‘I smuggled this out. Will Paddy mind?’
Mummy opened the book tenderly. It smelt old and musty, like the bottom of the airing cupboard in winter. There was a picture on the front – a man with long blond hair. I could see why Daddy wouldn’t like that book. He was always shouting at my brother, Mick, because his hair was too long.
Mummy’s lips thinned as she thrust the book into my hands. ‘Put this in your room but don’t let Daddy see it. It’s our secret.’
My big brothers had secrets and if I told on them they wouldn’t speak to me for ages. I couldn’t bear it if Mummy wouldn’t speak to me. I nodded.
I didn’t like the big, nasty smelling book and threw it under the bed. The man called Grandfather was nice, though. What could I give him in return? I would show him my doll’s pram with its tin hood that kept out the rain. It was just like the ones I saw mothers pushing when we walked down the high street. I angled the pram out of my bedroom and pointed it up the hall. In the kitchen Mummy was dabbing at her face with a handkerchief.
‘Aye, now that has to be the best pram I’ve ever set eyes on.’
He reached into his bag and took out two round Christmases and put them in my pram.
‘Take these oranges for a ride, love.’
‘They’re not oranges they’re Christmases, aren’t they, Mummy? They’re very special. Santa brings them once a year and puts them in our stockings.’
By the time I returned to the kitchen the man was standing; bag hanging from his shoulder.
He kissed Mummy on the cheek. ‘Goodbye, Love.’
‘Say goodbye Grandpa.’
The musty gift was rediscovered years later but I couldn’t read the stories about Jesus. I saw that combination of letters, J-E-S-U-S, and skipped guiltily over that convicting name. Like my mother I didn’t believe God and I were on speaking terms.
I was a teenager when Jesus broke the silence, becoming the most precious person in my life. My mother was in her late sixties before she too learnt to call him friend. I often wonder: did that grey eyed grandfather pray for his granddaughter? I know his grey eyed granddaughter prayed for her mother.
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