She opens the door to me and I am startled, once again, by her appearance. It has only been a few months since I last saw her, but she is smaller and frailer. Her body seems to be curling into itself. It is a warm day and she is wearing her light, sleeveless blouse. Her arms are pale and freckled. I can see the tiny mark of the familiar navy blue star, tattooed onto her shoulder.
She welcomes me in with an embrace, pulling me close with all the strength she has. Although she is hard and her bones are delicate, I feel my body loosen. I close my eyes and return the embrace, wrapping my huge arms around her tiny body. Her shoulders are bony, like they could fracture if I hug her too tight. I breathe in her musky smell, strangely like Parma Violets, even though she doesn’t eat them. Other familiar smells drift and soothe me. Coffee and cleaning detergent. The smell of my grandad’s Austrian cakes, baking in the oven, is embedded into the walls of the house.
My thoughts are interrupted by my grandma’s gentle voice. I am here, again. In the present. Thirty years old. Towering over her.
Would you like a coffee? She asks, smiling. The same soft, warm smile she always had. Fewer teeth. A little more hair on her upper lip.
I make the coffee in the kitchen, while she slowly sets up the game of Scrabble.
The kettle clicks. I bring the coffee to the living room, careful not to drop it. I know how clumsy I can be, and my hands feel shaky today.
Grandma and I sit opposite each other, surrounded by photographs. There are photographs of my grandma and grandad. On their wedding day. My grandma and her sisters, arms around one another. Photographs of me when I was a child. Aged six, covered in sun cream, staring up at Grandma with pure pride and absolute inspiration as she pulls one of her classic funny faces. There are photographs of my brother and sister. Mum and Dad before they separated. We look happy in the photos. Maybe it wasn’t all bad.
I remember where I am and pull myself back to the present. Grandma. Me. Scrabble. I twiddle my thumbs and eat a chocolate Hobnob. This could take a while. When Grandma is focused on getting a high-scoring word, time knows no boundaries. My eyes, once again, divert to the wall of photographs.
I am drawn to the photographs of my dad, my auntie and uncles. When they were children, dressed in bootleg denim jeans and red turtleneck jumpers and denim jackets. Floppy hair. Sun-tanned noses. Eating ice-creams in the sun. When they were older. In a pub, sat around a table. That was our Christmas trip to Northumberland, the last one we all had together. I made a gingerbread house that year with my grandad. In the photograph, the four siblings are sipping pints of beer, dressed in leather coats and bright, patterned jumpers. The fashion of 1993. They are all laughing. My uncle’s eyes are glistening. His smile reaches from cheek to cheek. He looks so kind.
Is there is there a sadness there, in those eyes?
That photograph was taken the year he decided to die.
I was three years old. I wish I’d known him - my Uncle John, whose favourite book was The Little Prince.
I think I’ll write about him next, I say to myself.
It’s your turn, Grandma says. Back to the Scrabble.
She picks up her chocolate Hobnob with shaky hands. Blue, pulsing veins protrude through the skin. She dips her biscuit into her coffee. When she lifts the coffee to her mouth, I worry she will spill it on herself. She manages though. She doesn’t spill a drop.
I focus on my letters. All vowels. Just my luck.
As we play the longest game of Scrabble in the world, she tells me stories. Sometimes she tells me the same story more than once. I don’t mind; I love to hear her stories. I like watching her eyes light up as she talks about her children. She loves telling the story of Dad getting smacked by a boy at school, coming home every night moaning about it. As she speaks, she curls her lip in a child-like, facetious way:
‘One day, I said to your dad – "Just punch him back, Ross!" And the next day I got a call from school saying your dad had broken the other boy’s nose! They were only six!’ She laughs with glee in her eyes. I love this woman, I think to myself.
She beats me at Scrabble, of course.