I sat down on the old cracked leather sofa, thinking.
This house is mine, now. After all this time. I came here as a kid, played here, spent my first Christmas gurgling and laughing on the very floor I’m staring at. When I was eight I ate too many Easter eggs and had to spend a Sunday afternoon prostrate on the dining room floor.
And now both my grandparents are gone, and the house is mine. Completely mine. Paid for, no debt, no mortgage. Just… mine.
“It’s generous of them,” my mother said. “Isn’t it?”
She always got on well with her parents, but they never liked my dad. I’ve never really understood why people allow things to divide them from their own family like that. I think that was a big part of my parents’ divorce, in the end. Dad re-married a Thai woman and spends half his time over there now. I keep wondering if I’ll find out in twenty years that I’ve got a brother or sister I’ve never met, but I’ll let that bother me when it happens.
I’m nearly thirty. Not married, no kids. No rush in my generation. Seems my grandparents worked faster, and my parents did too. I found that out from the box of papers my grandmum kept hidden at the back of the wardrobe. It’s all there – birth certificates, marriage certificates, even the 1954 ration book she had when she was nine. I know the age, because she wrote on it: “Cecily Harper, form 3B, age 9”.
I looked around, thinking. How am I going to do this? How am I going to clear the house out? There’s the picture of their wedding day for a start – do I keep that? I don’t really want it, because I don’t want to hang onto the past, but it feels wrong to just throw it away, as well. But then should I give it to a historical society, or to the local museum, and just let it gather dust in their archives?
What about grandpa’s beloved books, as well? Yeah, charity shops will take them, but they were all good editions, something he took so much care to put together.
And then grandmum, there’s her stuff too. The collection of porcelain figurines that are all twee and ghastly and I’d happily go and smash if she hadn’t loved them. If she hadn’t spent every Sunday dusting them lovingly and arranged them in just that perfect order. Even last month, in hospital, hooked up to chemo, she asked my mum to come and dust them. The nurses said she was fretting until mum came back, worrying she would break one.
There’s one thing I won’t keep though, and that’s grandpa’s piano. I remember him bashing out tunes on it – bar room favourites from the forties, mainly – to keep me amused when I was four or five. He could play, though. Proper stuff like Bach, Schumann, Beethoven. But I can’t even play “Chopsticks”.
He hadn’t played for a year or so before he died. He just stopped. Would mutter something if you asked, or change the subject, walk off, say something sarcastic or do just do anything else he could think of to try and avoid playing. I never understood that at the time, but it became clear later that it was the start of the dementia. It came fast, took him over and in a few short months he was gone.
“Well,” I said, turning to look at the piano. “I’m afraid you’re not going to be needed here much longer, but I’m going to try and find you a nice new home.”
You know how it is when you’re alone. You pretend you’re conducting an orchestra, or maybe you’re the great (air) guitarist. Perhaps you’re the world’s greatest singer who uses a hairbrush for a microphone; it doesn’t matter. Anything to relieve the monotony, or in my case, the grief. I walked over to that piano like I was about to play to a packed concert hall. I stood up straight, head back in my best haughty manner, and brushed my imaginary frock coat (even if it did have a picture of Tom and Jerry on it) and sat down at the piano.
Of all things, I always loved that piano stool. Black painted wood, with some of the paint peeling off, that embroidered top (slightly ragged in places with years of wear) and the seat that lifted up to show that collection of sonatas, airs and “selections from” that seemed so wonderful when I was five. Maybe I’d keep it, use it as the seat for my home office.
I didn’t actually play anything. Nothing to spoil the illusion. But it made me wonder – was any of that stash of sheet music still there? I stood up again and opened the lid.
On top was a book of “Selections from Schumann”, and the cover of a sheet of music from Ravel peeked out from underneath. They weren’t lying flat though – something was underneath them. More than one, actually. At least one of them was fairly big – about the right size and shape for a glasses case. Perhaps he had special glasses for reading music? I lifted them up and looked.
It wasn’t a glasses case. It was a tape recorder. The small kind they made in the 90s, that took really small tapes. They lasted maybe fifteen minutes or something each side – I remembered that my boss used to use one years ago, and then she’d give the tapes to her secretary and get them typed up. I always thought she was lazy but it turned out she had been keen on horses as a kid and had her hand stepped on just one too many times. When I asked once, she just shrugged and said “it happens.” That’s what you do, I suppose, if that happens to you. You just go on.
There was a tape already loaded in the machine, so I switched it on, but nothing happened. I turned it over and popped open the battery cover , but there were no batteries in it. I put it on top of the piano lid and took a look at the other bulge. It was a pair of batteries, still in a sealed pack. The date on the back said they were still usable – but only just. I opened them and popped them in the back of the machine. I turned it on.
“Robert,” said a familiar voice. “If you’re listening to this, and I hope it’s you, this is your grandpa.”
I stopped the tape and staggered backwards. I had to sit down. I sat back down on the sofa, wound it back a little, and continued.
“ – this is your grandpa,” the voice said. “I’m leaving this because I don’t really know any other way to communicate that’s safe. She won’t let me out of the house now. She’s got a plan of some sort. I don’t know quite what she’s got in mind but there’s no doubt she’s brewing something.”
I clicked off the tape. So this was it. Late stage dementia grandpa, thinking that the world was plotting against him. And she tried so hard not to have to put him in a home.
I sighed. Maybe a cup of tea would help.
I went into the kitchen, taking the tape recorder with me. I boiled their kettle, as I’d done so many times, and took my mug out of the cupboard. Well, it wasn’t the only one any more, but it was the one they’d called “Robert’s Mug”. It had a minion on it, because I’d introduced them to “Despicable Me”, back when grandpa was well enough to appreciate it.
I decided to listen a bit more. Maybe it would help. It could make things a lot worse. But I had to know. Click.
“Right now you’re probably standing at the piano, staring at this tape recorder, wondering why exactly I’ve chosen to do this. Well, Robert, you see, the thing is that she’s poisoning me.”
Poison. This was getting better.
“Let’s go out to the kitchen,” he said on the tape.
“Let’s not,” I whispered to myself.
“Six pills a day, you know.” he wittered on. “ I’m turning right into the hall. Now I’m opening the kitchen door. And now I’m in the kitchen.”
You’ve caught up, then, I thought, not relishing the excruciating inch-by-inch commentary.
“Now let’s open the door into the garage.”
I heard the sounds of the door opening and him shuffling down the step into the garage. I opened the door myself and walked there.
“So I’m in the garage,” he said.
The smell of old oil and the semi-dark of the garage was a little unsettling after the sunlit kitchen. I flicked the light on and heard a cracking noise behind me as the kettle finished boiling and turned itself off.
“Not very exciting, is it?” he said, sardonically. “Well let’s see if we can rustle up a little more interest.”
On the tape I heard him walking around and tried to follow where he was going.
“Not under that bugger,” he murmered, sarcastically, noisily moving something out of the way. “Now why are we keeping that – in case the lizard people invade?”
Come on, I thought. What are you doing, you silly old man?
“I’m eighty-one, you know,” he said on the tape, as though reading my thoughts. “Now stop moaning, Robert, because I know you bloody were.”
I almost turned the tape off then and there. It was too much to bear. This must have been one of the good days. Narky old grandpa back for a last hurrah, indulging his weird side again. The idea that grandmum was trying to kill him was a stretch though.
More rattles on the tape, a squeak like the tape being turned on and off, and then he was back, with something changed in his voice.
“Here it is,” he said. “Take a look in the tool cabinet – you were never really interested in that, you know, so it’s the big white thing with all the little drawers in the front.”
Yeah, I thought. I know, you sarcastic git.
“Now, third row down, last drawer on the right.”
On the tape, I heard what sounded like the front door and the recording stopped with a swishing noise. I turned it off.
I stood there for a few moments, looking at the tool cabinet. I reached forward,and opened the drawer.
Inside was a bottle of pills. I didn’t recognise the brand name. I slipped them in my pocket and went back to the kitchen. I poured water on a tea bag, added milk and sugar and let it brew for a moment before removing the bag. I sat on the kitchen stool, drinking my tea, staring into space, thinking.
I missed them both. My sarcastic old grandpa, who somehow knew exactly when to dial it back and when to use it to make you laugh and my sweet old gran who never had a bad word to say about anybody and yet managed to put her foot in it half the time.
By the time the my tea was finished, the sun was setting, and I had more questions than answers.
The old phone in the hall still used a dialler rather than the modern buttons. It wasn’t connected, but that didn’t matter much. I had my mobile. I dialled a friend of mine.
“Hi Kev, Robert.”
“Hi mate. Listen, sorry to hear about your grandmother, but -”
“It’s all good, man,” I said. “Listen, do you know anyone who could answer some questions about some pills I found?”
“Pills?” he asked, somewhat suspicious. “What sort of pills?”
“They’re ones that my grandpa was prescribed,” I replied. “I think they were for him, anyway. I’ve just never heard of them and I wondered what they were for is all.”
“Oh OK,” he replied, audibly more relaxed. “You could always give my ex a ring, she used to work in a pharmacy.”
“Which one’s that?”
“Lucy,” he said, and gave me the number.
“Thank mate, I owe you one.”
“And I expect payment in full,” he said. “In beer.”
“It shall be thus,” I replied, and hung up.
I dialled the number he gave me, and after a few moments a woman answered.
“Hello, Lucy?” I asked.
“Hello, yes, who’s this?” she asked.
“Hi, I’m Robert,” I explained. “Kev gave me your number because I wanted to ask someone who knows about pills about some that my grandpa was taking.”
She paused for a moment or two.
“Go on then,” she said.
I read out the label. “Is that usually prescribed for dementia?” I asked.
“Oh no,” she laughed. “Usually it’s heart, although it’s got some nasty side effects. Be more likely to give you dementia than cure it, I’d have thought.”
“Six pills a day?”
“30 milligrams?” she almost shrieked. “You’d be a vegetable in a few weeks for sure.”
“What were the symptoms?”
“Forgetful,” I said. “Shuffled around a bit. But other than that he was much the same as ever. Sarcastic. Obsessed with order. My grandmum could never throw anything away, she even kept her ration book from the 50s. And she had to hide it from him.”
“That’s not the usual way it happens,” she said. “If they’ve got Alzheimer’s, then sarcasm goes out the window, it’s one of the first things. They start hoarding, stealing, craving odd things. They like routine.”
“Thanks.” I both meant it and didn’t, at the same time.
I sat back down on that old green leather sofa again.
She’d murdered him. My grandmum. She knew she had cancer, so she killed him.
I turned and looked at the piano.
“You better be able to handle a beginner,” I said. “Because you and I, kid, we are going to make some noise.”
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