As far back as I can remember, I had a very happy childhood. As I was an only child, my parents gave me almost everything I wanted. Well, that is how it seemed to me. And it was my life I was living, so I must be right. So by the time I was about six, my little world had become a paradise.
But situations change, and fate tweaks the string of chance. My grandfather died when I was very young. I had little memory of him, apart from his size. I can remember that he was very tall, but my strongest memory of him was of his hands. I remember that he had large hands, but I can’t remember anything else about him. He died, leaving my grandmother alone in the big house in Rose Park. The moment the door closed behind her on the day of the funeral, Grandmother never left the house again. Her duty, she felt, was to keep alive the memory of the old man. And the only way she could see to it was to make the house a museum to his memory. She made herself a part of that memory by never wearing any other style of clothes than those in which he had known her.
So obsessed did she become with this idea, that soon she was wearing the exact dress, or its replica, in which she had watched the doctor as he had struggled to keep alive her husband on that last night.
When the old man had been alive, he had employed a series of housemaids to help his wife in the running of the household. These girls never stayed more than a few weeks; their mistress dispensed with their services at the slightest provocation. I don’t know whether she was particularly mean spirited, but I seem to remember that she was quite fastidious. No matter what the girls; the housemaids, did, it wasn’t good enough for my grandmother. So, when her husband died, she resolved never to have another maid in the house. Maids would have interrupted her routine; would have put something out of place; would not have understood the importance of the placement of old treasures.
The fact that she lived alone did not interest me until my seventh birthday. When my parents and I had finished lunch on that day, the day of my birthday, my father brought the car around to the front door. My mother helped me to get dressed and then we went down to the car.
In my favourite seat between my parents, I tried to collect my thoughts, and remember where we were going. But my mind was in too much of a happy haze. Wasn’t it my birthday, and hadn’t I had a wealth of presents? I was the centre of my world; I knew it; my parents helped me to know it.
When we arrived at the house in Rose Park, the fact that we were visiting Grandmother was still far from my thoughts. As far as I was concerned, she was just another very small part of a wonderful birthday; a part that could be placed in the same category as brushing my teeth, or getting the paper for Daddy. I hardly knew her. I remember seeing her and, of course I could recognise her from a photograph my mother had beside her bed. She never visited us; keeping her own self-imposed isolation. I had not been anywhere near the house in Rose Park for as long as I could remember. Grandmother was someone my mother, and occasionally my father, visited, but never with me.
As the door opened, my whole happy day collapsed around me. There before us stood a very old, wrinkled woman in a rust-brown woollen dress. She looked like grandmother; she was grandmother. But she wasn’t like the smiling, lady in my mother’s photograph. Something was very, very different; she looked so old. She kissed my mother, and then led the way, through the darkened hall, into the drawing room. As we entered the room, a wall of dry sweet smelling air hit me in the face. It was not the sweet smell that was my mother though; it was the sweet smell of medicine and old people. The curtains were drawn; although it was early afternoon and two small lamps gave a feeble light to the room. I looked around, and wherever I looked, I could see little tables and faded carpets, dried flowers in vases and photographs of a man who looked like Grandfather: on the mantelpiece; on the tables; on the wall. In some of the photographs the man was young and in others he looked old, but it certainly looked like Grandfather.
We sat in the drawing room for what seemed to be hours. Mother and Father drank tea and I had milk and a piece of cake. There wasn’t any real cake, with fruit and cherries in it; the cake was yellow and sort of hard and dry, and took a lot of chewing before I could swallow it. All the while, Grandmother flitted around the room, being a good hostess, and talking, talking, talking; not about herself, not about the things my father and mother used to talk about, but about Grandfather.
I almost said to my mother, “Is Granddad still here, or on holiday?” but my mother knew me well and she saw I was going to ask a question, so she put her hand to her lips in the way that she has, and I knew I had to wait till later to ask.
Eventually, Daddy looked at the clock on the mantelpiece and then at his watch and he said, in a voice that didn’t sound very much like Daddy’s voice at all, “Is that the time? Goodness, it’s getting late”. And then he said that we had to leave, and I felt like clapping my hands. We were leaving. At last we were leaving the musty old house. And we were going to leave the old lady in the woollen dress.
But no. Not yet. Grandmother said I would have to come upstairs with her as she had something for me. I looked first to Mother and then to Father, but they just smiled and told me to go with the old lady. There was no escape.
I followed her upstairs but my parents stayed in the drawing room and waited. At the door to her room, she took me by the hand to lead me inside. The curtains were closed and when she switched on the light, I looked inside. There was nothing in the room that I can remember now, except that it was full of little china ornaments and lots of bottles on the dressing table and a big picture of the man who looked like Grandfather over the end of her bed. Grandmother kept hold of my hand and drew me further into the room.
On the bed was a parcel; a parcel wrapped in brown paper. The parcel was my present. The present was for me. My birthday present; wrapped in brown paper. Grandmother picked it up and thrust it into my hands. Then she bent down and kissed me on the mouth, and her kiss was horrible. An old lady’s kiss…soft, wet, horrible.
Then we came downstairs again. “You go first,” said Grandmother, “I take a long time. Hold on tight. We wouldn’t want to fall, would we?” And then, at last, I was at the front door, and everyone was saying, “Good bye! Good bye! Good bye!”
On the way home, I sat in the back seat by myself. I put the brown paper parcel on the seat beside me.
I never found out what that present was. I didn’t even try to open it.
I dropped the brown paper package out of the window before we left Rose Park.