Antimacassar

Terms and conditions will apply,” said Grandpa jovially, just clinging to his cheer as my mother scrubbed at his foaming scalp with both hands. “They will app-ly”. His voice broke with pain as she turned the shower wheel and a spurt of boiling water burst over his head, but you could still hear his voice bouncing around the house. “Oh deary me,” it sang. “Oh dear.”

Grandpa was a thick-necked old oak, who had spent all of his life crossing hardship over toil. He’d graduated from the brigadiers in his early twenties before working up to police sergeant in Manchester, where he’d seen, in his own words, “grey peril hewn from thug piss and granite.” After thirty years he swapped scum for sod, ‘retiring’ to Ashbourne in Derbyshire turning calloused hands to the old farmland where he’d lived as a boy, during the war. At eighty-one years of age, he uprooted stumps, tended to crops and, in what would be anyone else’s sitting years, was facing down the approaching dark horizon straight-backed and holding a large spade.

And now here he was, sat naked and hunched over in the bath, as my mother scalded his face, triple-rinsed his hair and took a horse brush to his back. Had my Grandpa suffered a reduction of his physical or mental stock, this would still be upsetting, but at least understandable. It would have the grim, numb-eyed dignity afforded when age reverses the duties of a child, making them parent to their parent. But my Grandpa did a crossword every two days and recently forced a cow into a seated position by pushing down on its head really hard. Why did he smile and take up the position of a child? No man in the house could have physically forced him into the tub, so why did he volunteer for this prison-yard hosing?

Possibly because it was Christmas. This was the only time of year I really saw my Grandpa. He’d leave the fields in the kind care of his neighbours, lock up the 17th century farmhouse with one of those hefty iron keys that are just impossible today, and take the train. He was like a character from a cartoon during most of my childhood, in that every time I saw him he would make the same “waheeeey”, “kiddoooo” noises and be dressed in exactly the same clothes. Just as the Flintstones had a wardrobe filled with endless copies of their trademark, so too did Grandpa. Those tweed trousers, that cap, given to him as boy by his father on the eve of his evacuation. “In case I don’t see you again, grow into this, he’d said” Grandpa reminisced once, with his fluffy new-soaped hair and a red, glowing, clean face.

Christmas was his one time to leave the stone chill of the farm and enjoy his son-in-law’s brandy, his daughter’s soft, exquisitely-maintained armchairs and the company of his grandchildren. “My favourite time of the year” he would smile at me, clapping a huge hand on my shoulder, “but terms and conditions do apply” he added, when Mum howled like a stuck wolf in the hallway, because Grandpa had tracked some Derbyshire mud on the Kenyan runner. A pair of women’s slippers flew in our direction, missing us by inches. Grandpa strained up from his chair, placed them on his feet and took another sip of brandy.

As I’d grown up I had become more interested in my Grandpa as a person. I had become slowly aware, as all children do, that Grandpa had not been born a grandfather and we talked often about his life, his army days in Carlisle, his police training in Warrington. He did not like to talk too much about the past though. By his own admission he had been a different man, a harder man, driven to a temper by the stress of his work, the hatred of which he’d only occasionally track home with him like mud.

Mother physically deteriorated when Grandpa was in the house. Her house was new, not centuries old, her furniture would care if it were mistreated with knocks or cuts. She chose sofa cushions for their colour and they were too fine to ever be sat upon. In fact, she spent much of her life removing any evidence of occupation from our house, like a someone wiping away their footprints in the snow after every step. She had grown up in a poor home, but she had been lucky. She would live well, and clean, and god could not help you if you didn’t have the same standards. Grandpa was a farmer who lived most of his life in one room and one field, owned a single plate and didn’t wash his hair.

Grandpa has been asleep open-mouthed in the armchair, his head resting again the Afghan wool and my sisters and I were taking photos of him as part of a ‘Grandpa: Dead or Asleep?’ photo album we were working on. When Grandpa lifted his head to fend us off, we all fell silent. By the grease of his hair, Grandpa’s head had left a large dark shadow on the white fabric of the chair. Mother, when she saw it, walked out to the summerhouse and wept.

Since then, Grandpa was forbidden to sit in any chair without an antimacassar draped over the headrest, he was made to remove his shoes before he got into Mum’s car when she collected him from the train station, and he would agree to be washed, scrubbed and powdered at regular intervals. Mum followed him around, placing coasters under his drinks, and newspapers under him. After a few years, Mum could simply not take the clothes anymore. “These can’t be cleaned” she shouted, crumpling up his tweeds trousers. “I’m binning them and I’ll pick you up some new.” He smiled and winked at us. She took his trousers, his shirt, his tie, but he stopped her when she tried to take his cap.

“No, dear” he said.

The cap’s lining was discoloured from the years it had spent against Grandpa’s hair, and Mum was right, the smell and the stains has become knotted in with the very fabric of the thing. It couldn’t be cleaned.

“No, dear” he said again, louder, as she tried to snatch it from him. Mum was building a head of steam now. She made one last grab, pulling the material, popping some seams.

“EMMA” my Grandpa bellowed. We all jumped out of our skin, most of all Mum. She physically shrank, eyes widening like a scared child. For the briefest of moments, their parent-child relationship had blown back into place, large and terrible. Right then, I knew why Grandpa had allowed himself to be subjected to everything; because he was a different man now, and that was more important than anything.

Without saying more, he handed the cap to Mum and retreated to his armchair. He placed his head against the protective cloth and waited for his breath to return to normal. Then he smiled at us. “Terms and conditions” he said, softly, his voice a fraction of what it had been. “Very fair.”

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