‘I think that’s everything, Mrs Newman. I shall see you again in a week’s time,’ the man says, putting away his tape measure and sheaf of fabric samples, and casting one final experienced and slightly pitying glance towards the current pair of worn mustard velvet curtains.
Grandma shows him out, and they continue talking through the hall and at the front door. Grandpa and I look at one another and snigger, instinctively sharing a joke neither of us needs to explain. Grandpa looks tired. He has had a cold for several days now, and is uncharacteristically still in pyjamas although it is mid-morning. Judging by their brown and orange stripes, and large collars, they are at least as old as the mustard curtains, in fact Grandpa in pyjamas is a sight so rarely seen that it brings back memories of my early childhood, the days when I was the only grandchild, Grandma and I sitting up in their double bed looking at a book together and waiting for Grandpa to return to bed with the tray of pre-breakfast drinks and biscuits.
I am nineteen now, and as the oldest grandchild by a number of years, I have a special bond with my grandparents, one which is about to be strengthened in a way I can’t possibly foresee as we sit on the cream leather sofa and armchair on this bright early-summer Tuesday morning. Grandpa is quiet, but that’s not unusual, he is well known in the family for drifting off into his own world. I always imagine his thoughts as some kind of higher plane, occupied by politicians, historical figures and the characters of Trollope, Dickens, Hardy and Shakespeare. My current thoughts are rather lower down. I am wondering whether turquoise damask was the right choice for the curtains. They will certainly brighten the room, but I think once they are hung their pristine brilliance will highlight the fact that the wallpaper and paintwork have darkened over the years, stained by cigarette smoke, children’s fingers and everyday life, to almost the same shade of mustard as the old velvet drapes.
‘He’ll be back to hang them next Tuesday morning,’ remarks Grandma unnecessarily, coming back into the room. She looks happy, this is the first time they have ever had custom-made curtains. ‘I’ll make some tea,’ she adds, turning to leave again, but Grandpa interrupts.
‘Don’t make any for me,’ he says. ‘I’m going to lie down before lunch.’ And he makes his way slowly upstairs.
Grandma looks worried. ‘I’m glad Dr Chauhan’s coming this afternoon,’ she says, ‘Your Grandpa’s really not himself at the moment.’
I agree. I’ve been spending a lot of time with them lately. I’m unemployed, but now I have an offer of a university place I no longer have to make excuses for my ineffectual attempts at finding work. Grandpa doesn’t seem to be shaking this cold. A few days ago he seemed to be getting better, and took his favourite walk across the park to the second hand bookshop in Selly Oak, but although he returned triumphant with a good haul, including a Mary Wollstonecraft for me, it seems to have set him back, and he hasn’t left the house since.
As Grandma boils the kettle for tea, I move from the sofa next to Grandpa’s empty armchair to the old brown recliner in front of the mustard-curtained French windows that lead into the garden. This is next to Grandma’s armchair. As long as I can remember they have each sat in their particular corner of the room – Grandma by the brightest source of natural light for her knitting, and facing the television; Grandpa under a reading lamp, next to a bookcase and the radio.
It is a lovely day, which highlights further how unwell Grandpa must be feeling. Ordinarily on a day like this he would be working in the large back garden. It is a full-time job maintaining the terrace, lawn, rose garden, fruit trees, greenhouses and vegetable patch he has developed over the years. I have stirred dust from the carpet by crossing the room, and the motes dance in the beam of sunlight coming through the window. When I was very small my Dad told me they were fairies, and I believed him for years.
Grandma and I drink our tea, and settle down to work on our project. She is knitting me a light pink sweater from an original 1950’s pattern, and I am sewing a pattern of pearl beads on to the pieces she has already completed. It is 1992, and I have a passion for rockabilly music and vintage clothing. My lack of wages has made me very resourceful with a needle and thread. Knitting is a skill which my Grandma has passed to me through my Mother and Aunt, but at nineteen I don’t yet have the patience to complete anything larger than gloves or hats.
We talk about inconsequential things – the yarn and beads we are using, family gossip, plans for the next few days, my latest boyfriend – and before we know it an hour and a half has passed and we are both starting to feel hungry.
‘I’ll pop up and check on John,’ Grandma says. ‘He’ll probably want to come down for lunch.’
I lean back in the chair, enjoying the warmth of the sun, the silence of my surroundings. There are none of the traffic noises I am familiar with at home, and as it is a school day there are no children playing outside or humming lawnmowers. I can hear my own breathing, and the clock ticking rhythmically in the hall – then I jolt upright in response to an anguished shout from upstairs of ‘Louise! Louise!’
I run upstairs and Grandma is on the landing. The expression on her face is like nothing I have seen before, and she says, ‘I think he’s dead!’
‘What?’ I say stupidly.
‘He can’t be!’ I say, and follow her into the bedroom.
Grandpa’s legs are sitting on the edge of the bed, his feet still in his brown suede slippers on the floor. His torso and head are backwards, flat on the bed, which is neatly made as if he has only just sat down. He is still wearing his glasses, and his eyes stare up at the ceiling. His face is strange, a grotesque caricature of himself, his mouth hanging open, dentures loose. He looks almost, but not quite, like my Grandpa.
I am useless. ‘What do we do?’ I whisper.
Grandma picks up the bedroom telephone extension and dials 999. We sit on the opposite side of the bed to Grandpa and I hold her hand as she talks to the woman at the other end of the line. This is not the Grandma I know either. Her voice is new to me.
We sit at the top of the stairs and wait for the ambulance, silently clinging onto each other. It may be a minute or an hour before the ambulance arrives, I have lost all concept of time passing. The paramedics examine him, then place something on his chest and attempt to jolt life back into him. It is the most horrible thing I have ever seen, Grandpa’s grey body flailing on the bed, and it haunts me for years afterwards. They keep trying, again and again, although we know it is pointless. They pronounce him dead, and tell us from the way he was sitting it must have been very sudden.
This is little comfort, and I am suddenly struck by the difficulty of consoling Grandma, who like Grandpa was an active member of the Communist Party until the 1950s and a lifelong atheist. There are no platitudes I can give her about him being in a better place, or watching over her. He is gone, she is left behind, and that is that. Over the next few years she will become increasingly bitter, unable to hide her jealousy when she hears of women whose husbands have survived heart attacks.
The rest of the day is spent waiting for people – my parents, my aunt and uncle, my brother and cousins, Dr Chauhan, and a respectfully soft-footed undertaker who shuts us in the sitting room as he slips Grandpa discreetly out of the house. The room is full of people, but strangely quiet. Grandma and I hold hands on the sofa. No one sits in Grandpa’s chair.
I don’t cry until I get home that evening. Later on I will think of all the unfinished conversations, unasked questions and half-told tales I had always assumed there would be plenty of future opportunities for. But as I watch the hearse pull away from the house my only thought is that he will never see the new curtains.
A few weeks later my thinner, paler Grandma hands me a carrier bag containing the pink sweater. ‘I’ll understand if you don’t ever feel like wearing it,’ she says. I kiss her soft cheek and take the carrier bag upstairs to hide at the bottom of my wardrobe.