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Open Features: Great 'ma

Here's a special treat. The opportunity to read a novel in progress. Jackie Wearing's story of family life revolves around the splendid Great 'ma, a lady who now spends most of her time in bed. It's about the lack of understanding between generations, the way the young think of the old, the consolation provided by memories... This is writing which lives and breathes. And Great 'ma is a treasure!

Here's a special treat. The opportunity to read a novel in progress. Jackie Wearing's story of family life revolves around the splendid Great 'ma, a lady who now spends most of her time in bed. It's about the lack of understanding between generations, the rich treasures of memory, the way the young think of the old... This is writing which lives and breathes. And Great 'ma is a treasure!

The room was quiet, except for the slow breathing of the elderly woman sleeping in the bed. The curtains moved slightly at the partially open window and the boy, sitting in a basket chair by the side of Great 'ma, his great grandmother, watched them drift, his book lying idly on his knee. A slight movement in the bed quickly turned his attention back to it and he looked into the eyes of Great 'ma and smiled. He felt excited and thought he ought to call someone, but the answering smile he received held him still for a moment and without thinking he said "I'm glad you didn't die Great 'ma."

Great 'ma closed her eyes again and tried to remember the boy's name. She knew him well enough, and what could have been better, she reflected, than having this particular great grandchild to meet her waking gaze. Obviously she had been very ill. The boy's comment made her aware that her death had been speculated upon. and at her age it was to be expected. Later she would amuse herself identifying the reactions of the different members of the family, but then hearing the boy get up, quickly, though breathlessly, said, "Don't go just now".

She held out her hand, looking at him again, and he took it, even as he did so, registering the papery lightness of the touch.

"How long have I been ill? I seem to think it was cold before."

"Quite some time, Great 'ma. We've been coming every other weekend for about six weeks. Mum has been here almost all the time, and Aunt Hilda all the time. You didn't want to stay in hospital so they brought you to Auntie Delphine as her house is larger than ours. I am supposed to tell them if you wake up. Dr. Bishop said he thought you might be with us again - those were his words - today. You've been sleeping a lot easier for some time and waking now and again. Do you think you are going to stay awake now?"

This made her smile at him again and he smiled back. He was really delighted that he had been there as she woke.

"Yes, I think I may stay awake a little while now, but it's a bit of an effort to talk. You'd better go and tell someone I'm conscious. I remember the hospital now".

The boy caught the humour of her. It was something that always made him smile. He kissed her hand and quickly left the room. It was as if she dropped back in time, remembering the boy's name as she did so. "Jeffrey." Not that he had the same name as Edward who had kissed her hand those oceans of time ago. It was the humorous aura between them reflecting back as if time concertina-ed into one moment.

"I was fifteen. After the Great War. The expectation of big brother David coming home at last. The door-bell, rushing to open it and a complete stranger helping him through to the hallway.

"This is Edward." David said and collapsed onto the hall chair.

The rest of the family arrived, Mother and Father, and sister Judith peering over their shoulders.

"Go back in Jennifer." Mother commanded.

From this moment the house was different, Edward moving in. He whistled and made more noise than we were used to. Mother and Father refused to call him Ted, although he had said that this was how David referred to him. Mother especially seemed very upset. No one told me why my brother wasn't well, I just gathered this and wasn't at all put out by the fact that he wanted Edward all the time. I only wondered that his friend was so easy about it. Meeting on the stairs he said

"You don't remember me?"

"No. You're funny."

He smiled and kissed my hand and I remembered.

"Is that you.? You’ve got old."

Some time ago, David and he had arrived one night and made a lot of noise. I got out of bed and went to see what was happening. Mother sent me straight back to my room, but as I left David's friend had kissed my hand and said

"I'll be back for you."

Now he said, "Yes, but you'll make me young again, wont you?"

When I asked Judith about him the next day, she said it would be best not to mention him. On the stairs he smiled in that way of his. From then on we became friends. That is till I walked in on him in the bathroom and, instead of leaving, informed him that he ought to lock the door, whilst taking a good look at him He just came and kissed me. Well it was no good pretending I was without some understanding of a physical response to a man. I had had my dreams and though now its seems to be accepted that we knew nothing, I can't understand that. Was I so different from other young girls. We couldn't be ignorant of the response of our bodies when we washed ourselves. But I was frightened at the physical shock that hit me. I ran away and blushed and laughed, not knowing what to do. After that when we met, he would smile and I would smile, like conspirators.

David began to improve enough for me to be with him. He told me that he and Edward had managed to look after each other during the horrible time in the war and would always be friends. He said that Mother worried about the close friendship, but I didn't understand why till much later. I could have told her that Edward liked girls. I just knew he did. Then one day when Edward came in while David and I were chatting, he put his hands on my shoulders and said, "I'm finding it difficult to keep a distance between me and your sister. Do you think it would be better to move on?

This put David into quite a state and Edward told me to leave them. That was when Mother began to get angry and argue with Father. The atmosphere in the house now became even more difficult with no one daring to say much to Mother. I spent a lot of time with Daisy in the kitchen, asking questions which she said she knew nothing about.

"I just do the cooking," she stated, "I don't know and I don't want to know. Except that your Mother does not deserve all this upset. You had better be on your best behaviour and not cause any more problems."

I knew that she knew more than she would say and I didn't really expect that she would tell me anything.

Mother had never raised her voice much in the past, but now, when you passed her bedroom, sometimes you could hear what she was saying. I asked Judith who Oscar Wilde might be, but, again, was told it was best not to mention it. Just to get the reaction of Daisy, I asked her the same thing. She bustled about, then opened the pantry door and disappeared inside. I waited a bit and she came out and repeated, "Your poor Mother doesn't deserve all this. Now go away, I've work to do."

Judith kept taking me for walks and to see relatives. She had always been rather remote from me, being ten years older, yet now we became quite close. I told her about Edward kissing me. She was surprised and asked me lots of questions. There wasn't much else to tell her except that we smiled at each other and that I liked him. She asked me if I loved him and I didn't really know, but said that when he had kissed me I had liked it. She just raised her eyebrows and said she hadn't realised how grown up I was, adding that I was still a child to her.

My sixteenth birthday was coming up and she and I went off to the Isle of Wight as a treat for me. I knew that it was to get me out of the way and I was curious to know why. Judith I thought would tell me nothing, although she talked a lot about Edward. What I didn't know until we were on the Island was that she had made a point of meeting Edward privately. We had been in our hotel a few days when Edward and a man named Albert came to spend the day with us. They went off together for a while and Judith and I went for a walk out into the country. There she talked about the bull in the field and how after he had been with the cow she had a calf. Then she said that men had the same 'thing'. At this point I said I knew that as I had seen Edward without his clothes, but that his 'thing' was very small. There was a sort of snort from her at this point and I said "Who is Albert?"

She answered quite sharply,"Why do you ask?"

"Because he seems very friendly towards you and I thought he might like you, like Edward likes me."

There was a pause while she looked all round us. She was obviously thinking out what she should say.

"You mustn't say anything about this at home. I've known Albert for two years and I was going to tell the parents about him but then we heard that David was ill and it didn't seem the right time."

"I don’t think the parents will like him much," I said, "they don't like Edward and Albert is worse."

"Worse?

"Well from their point of view. They come from a different class, don’t they?"

"With the war, that has all changed. They can't see it Albert earns almost as much as Father. He's selling these automobiles you see now. His idea is that Edward and David join him. He says there's a great future in them. Everyone will want one."

"Are you going to marry him? Has he asked you?"

"Yes. I'll have to tell the parents soon, but with all this other thing going on ... “

"What other thing?" I interrupted. This was one of the longest conversations we had ever had. Judith seemed to be brought back to me being the younger sister. She studied me for a moment and then said, "David and Edward are going to get a place to live in together. Mother doesn't want David to move out, but he insists on going."

It was my turn now to turn away. I realised I didn't want Edward to go and in that moment Judith seemed to understand. She put her hand on my arm and told me that Edward wanted to keep in touch through her.

That evening we went to a dance hall and Edward taught me to do a funny dance. We were dancing very close and it made me feel good. I don't know how to describe it, but it was comfortable. We went out of the dance hall. I thought, 'well nobody here knows us so it won’t matter'. So, for the second time he kissed me. I was a bit more ready for my reaction this time, though it was still a shock. I thought of Heathcliff and Darcy and the books I'd read.

It was two years before I was alone with him again, though Judith sometimes took me to see him. He still had the same smile for me and joked about me having stolen his youth.

Great 'ma came back to the present, thinking, who have I been telling all this to? The boy perhaps, but I don't think so. Aloud she said, "They're all dead" and was surprised to hear her daughter Hilda say."What was that. Mother?"

Opening her eyes, she looked at her daughter and thought, 'Miss Bates’

"Jeffrey said you were awake, but when I came in you seemed to have dosed … Delphine will be home in an hour or two. She has been very… She put new curtains in this room and moved out everything that would not be needed while you have it as your room. She even removed the Tiger figure that you once said looked starved. There are so many cards and letters…. Jeffrey has counted them, I think….. such a good boy and has been looking in on you . Just to see how you are going on, he says. I mustn't tire you out…. anything I can get you? You've had a drip on till very lately... do you know what I mean? That tube thing they connect you to. Dr. Bishop such a good man… has been every day. Just calling in to see how things are. Delphine and he spend some time together. He is so conscientious. We have to find out what you would like… I expect it will be okay… to eat that is. That's what Dr. Bishop said, anyway. I thought we ought to give you a special diet. You have had some soup, these last two days, but a lot of it got spilt. What did you say - I am rattling on a bit aren't I? Well....."

Great 'ma waved her hand and Hilda leant over her, smiling and looking encouraging.

"Who's here now?" she asked her daughter.

"Oh well, just now there's only Jeffrey and I. It is Friday today though - did you know that? - so there will be most of the family calling in, except some of the children. Though they may come. It's quite a party sometimes at the weekends....."

Great 'ma waved her hand again, thinking quite kindly of Miss Bates and giving a nod to Jane Austen for the lesson in tolerance.

"Where's Jeffrey?" She asked aloud.

"Well I have to tell you he's been rather - well you know he's always been curious. I think you might be rather cross with him. Though Delphine thought it all rather amusing. You know I don't always understand her. She says that you would find it amusing too. What do you think? Oh, of course I haven't told you have ......"

Great'ma waved her hand and Hilda leaned close to her again .

"Is it something rude?" she asked

At that moment the door opened. Hilda, quickly twisting her neck to peer round at it announced "It's Delphine", and as quickly stood , clasping her hands together in front of her, then rubbing them slightly, looking very pleased.

"I'll just get back to the kitchen..."

Delphine smiled at her, which was a bit of a relief to Great'ma who watched them both.

"There's no need to go. You can tell me how you are getting on". Delphine replied.

Hilda began to say as she backed towards the still open door

"Well now, I've got this pudding on... you see I only came in to check that... Well I have been busy and... well now Jeffrey said - I thought I'd just look in. I'll come back later."

She closed the door very gently behind her.

"How does your cook feel about Hilda in the kitchen?" Her voice still week Great'ma asked.

"That tells me you are really on the mend", Delphine replied, then began to explain that her cook had, in fact, wanted a break to go back to Scotland for some family celebrations and had welcomed Hilda with open arms.

"I never realised before that Hilda could probably run a hotel. When a large number of the family have been here together she is a wizard in the kitchen. I've never known anyone quite so pleased with serving everyone. I've had to intervene to make sure they didn't take advantage of her. And I always remember you saying how strange it was to have such a daughter, but that you thought of Jane Austen’s Miss. Bates and it helped a lot."

"Edward had an Aunt similar to her. I met her when we went to Yorkshire to be introduced to all his extended family".

Delphine looked away from the bed and stared out of the window - just for a fraction, but Great'ma saw the look.

"What's the matter? Something worrying you?" she said.

"No, not worrying me, but I want to ask for something ."

"Okay. What?" The voice was very quiet, but, to Delphine, still held that sense of abruptness.

"I'll ask you and tell you why and than leave you to think about it. All Right Can I take charge of your notebooks? The reason is that Jeffrey found them and began to read them. Hilda thinks they should be - well I'm not sure what she thinks should happen to them. Jeffrey repeated to her something of what he had read... I think about your first experiences with Edward. Anyway I took charge of them. I really didn't think it would upset you too much, but one never can tell with personal revelations. I want to keep them for Jeffrey. Love doesn't seem to be the right word for his admiration of you. I think Hilda has an idea it is a bit unhealthy the way he wants to know everything about you and how you lived. I keep telling her to him it is history. A window into a world already gone... "

"How old is Jeffrey now...?" Great'ma's voice was slower and she felt herself drifting away from Delphine.

"He's fifteen. Very bright and a joy to his Mother." There was a little irony here but she realised Great'ma was dozing off. She gently lifted Great'ma's head and adjusted the pillows, (Great’ma noting that ironic smile on Delphine's face as she performed this service), and then with a slight last pat on the pillow, moved towards the door and Great'ma's voice only just reached her.

"Yes keep them till you think fit."

"Right Jenny"

She stood quietly outside the door, thinking of the recovery of Jenny, smiling at the thought of how everyone called her Great'ma and how contrary it seemed to them that she insisted on calling her Jenny.

Inside the room, Great'ma slightly stretched and eased herself in the bed. She had also registered the "Jenny". It was a humorous understanding between them, though Great'ma entering into the play, was not sure why Delphine took such pleasure in it. The girl had always given out this sense of a secret, ironic detachment from the immediate action going on around her. Somewhat like my sister Judith. That sort of detachment, yet without the irony, bits and pieces of relations that went before, here and there, mixed up. Jeremy's curiosity, like brother David when very young, which all got changed. That is until he got into cars. Albert with all his flashy ways had said, "I'll get him right."

And the next thing we knew he had got him under a car, finding out how it worked. It’s all so calm and easy to look back on. Not like then, one remembers the upsets and crises, but the emotion isn't there anymore. How trivial the jealousy I felt when they were all together and me excluded. How silly one is when young. Full of oneself, egocentric. Nasty to Mother for driving Edward away – or so I thought till months later. Not too late to say sorry, but she wasn’t the sort to forgive easily.

* * *

Delphine stood outside the door, perplexed herself at her insistence that this old lady, Jenny, should be nursed in her house. There was always these surprising decisions that she made, which seemed against what she was actually thinking. She amused herself in contemplating an undercurrent, almost another person within herself who made things happen in some novel way. She walked across the hall into the opposite front room. It had a very comfortable rather than stylish air. A small table stood between two inviting small armchairs. She sat down and the face of Jenny came back to her. Not as it was now, but on that day when she had arrived at her grandmother’s house.

A very loud bell clanged and she turned and stood looking out from the house to the front hedge, thinking, why have I come here? Then the door was opened by Jenny.

“Oh. Come in. I was in the garden, so it took me a while to answer. Is anything wrong with the family?”

“I’m pregnant”

“Well, come in then. What do you want, tea? Something stronger? Oh no, that’s not allowed is it?”

There had then been a complete survey of the situation. Her degree course… twenty years old with a baby to look after All her life before her… the safety of abortion. No one need know, if she didn’t want them to. Then the question… “What would you do Grandma?” and the straight, unequivocal answer,

“I’d have the baby...but then I’ve had babies you see. I think it makes a
difference Why don’t you sleep on it? I take it you are here for…… well whatever you like.”

So she had stayed for a week, hardly talking about the pregnancy, and went back to university and ‘kept’ the baby. She called her Cynthia and, for some reason hidden even from herself, she insisted on calling Grandma, Jenny. There had been continued support for her from then on, caring for my ‘tiny bundle of love’ as I used to ironically call her. Love was hardly the word for a night of too much drink and self indulgence, even if it had been Christmas and the season of goodwill. The one thing she differed on was in not telling the father. Jenny seemed to think in terms of this being his right. I saw him often enough but always acted as if I she had no memory of the ‘fateful’ night. One thing that stood out in her mind even to the present time, was a comment by Jenny’s Doctor. “Some babies are determined to be born.” Well, given the modern statistics, there are a lot more of them about, determined to get born.

The strange thing was that after that initial early time there had been very little contact between Grandma and Grand-daughter and though it might seem natural for her to repay Jenny for that time, she felt that had not been her reason for her insistence that she should be brought back to her house. However logical it was in that she had plenty of room, she had realised that the amount of people coming and going would cause her great offence. And she was right.

She remembered noticing Jenny flinch slightly when she had stated

“There’s one thing about the father though, at least I chose a bloody good looking one for her,” yet without then knowing all the facts. And now my daughter is twenty and skittish, and wilful and completely delightful. Doesn’t want university, doesn’t want to live with anyone. Has a great, great, great friend called Fluffy and assures us all, without us asking, that they are not lesbian... yet. And here I sit and smile as I think of her. Perhaps she is why I could see my house invaded by all and sundry.

These musings came to a complete halt as noises from the rear part of the house heralded the arrival of the two nurses she had hired to come twice a day every day to tend, the then thought to be dying, sort of, nominal head of the family.

June and Danny came with their usual mater-of-fact manner, armed with all the materials they seemed to need to wash, change and generally ‘tidy up’ their ‘wonderful’ patient. They had not been subdued by the sick room. Had, in fact, shown an interest in the beautiful surroundings, and wished more of their patients, though many of them private, had such a delightful place in which to end their days. Die as Delphine said.

“Well here we are,” June said. “We have to get on quickly as we have another appointment after this one and my daughter has to work night-shift at the moment, which means I have to be there to baby-sit”.

“Good” Delphine thought as she realised that she would be free from the time she felt called on to spend hearing the latest news of this gregarious, happy lady’s family. Not that she didn’t feel some guilt at the thought as she knew that these people had shown all the best care for their patient. Dr. Bishop had recommended them. Where needed they worked together, June chatting even to an only partially conscious patient. Always referring to them by name and very familiarly calling Great’ma Jennifer. Danny all the time just carrying on quietly lifting and easing the body he was concentrating on. How would it all be now that Jenny seemed much more aware of the world?

“Well we’ll find out” she thought as, whilst informing the pair of the change.

Danny’s enthusiastic response surprised her. She had thought him unconcerned rather than dedicated to his job.

He now said, “She has said thank you a couple of times, you know I thought she might get better.”

June looked at him sharply and said to Delphine, “You must realise she is very weak. We will have to go very carefully with her. She will need all the care you can give her.” Then after a pause with her hand on the door knob she added, “This large family of hers, it’s obvious that they will want a share of her time. You must make sure they don’t make her overdo it. The care that she has had, both from you and us has given her more time, but it is crucial we go slowly and don’t tire her too much.”

She then opened the door and looked in at her patient, Jennifer and said “She’s a lovely old lady. I’m quite fond of her.”

Delphine thought the last thing she would have thought to label Jenny was ‘lovely old lady’

With that June was into the room, which then became her domain.

Delphine thought she had better stay, just to reassure herself that now Jenny was taking more note of her surroundings she would not be distressed by this forced intimacy. She watched as June very gently put her hand out to touch her patient.

“Now Jennifer, we are going to have to move you so we can make you
comfortable again. Can you hear me dear? If you let us take charge and relax, it won’t be so difficult for you.”

As Danny moved up on the other side of the bed, Delphine was surprised to hear Jenny say “I remember you,” then turning her head towards June “And you too.” She then looked at Delphine with that straight look she so often used, which the later interpreted as a dismissal. She quietly left the room.


………………..

“I can’t believe the time that has gone by since you came round, Great 'ma”

Jeffrey was again sitting by her bed. A place he had inhabited as often as he could, though he realised his aunt Hilda did not approve. He had managed to get one of his Great Grandma’s note books from his Aunt Delphine and was waiting to ask about one passage he had found very intriguing. He knew he had to be patient, but appreciated his aunt’s humour when she suggested it would be a kindly interference if he was to inadvertently over tax anyone. He even thought of passing the quip on to Great.ma, but sometimes when his aunt was exasperated with the comings and goings of people he was not sure it was a good idea. He certainly wasn’t going to mention it to anyone else as there were some in the family who might well be tempted to do that very thing.

“What time is it?” The question came with a little more strength than when he had first realised she was conscious.

“It’s nearly nine o’clock “, he answered.

“My gallant attendants will be here about now. In fact I can hear them coming, Whatever is on your mind will have to wait until after they have gone.”

“Yes, I did want to ask you about something you wrote. How did you know? Aunt Delphine told you she had given me one of your notebooks didn’t she?”

“I wouldn’t call them notebooks...jotters more like. You sit there clutching it, which should, I suppose, give me some sort of satisfaction, but I can hardly remember what they have to say. Certainly not to someone your age. Here’s my daily wash and brush up pair now.”

There was a knock at the door and June and Danny walked straight in. June looked disapprovingly at Jeffrey who quickly vacated his seat and left them to begin their routine.

June began even as she walked towards the bed “Now you know we suggested you could sit out in a chair while we tidy the bed, well we will see how you get on. It will do you good. Your Doctor thinks it will anyway.” She seemed a bit unsure about this and would have been even more so if she had known this was the old lady’s emphatic demand of the Doctor.

Danny smiled and gently began to lift her. June quickly bustled up to the other side of the bed but realised she was in the wrong place.

“Now wait a moment.” She came round to stand beside Danny as Great.ma began to lift up the bed clothes.

“What are you doing?” Danny asked.

“I’m going to put my legs out of the side of the bed.” She began to do this and Danny quickly took hold of her from behind, under her arms. The thin, pale legs were already moving to the side.

“Have you got her?” June said

The answer came as a definite yes, so June began to make sure that nothing impeded the frail efforts. Great.ma was determined to achieve her object even though she realised it was going to take more strength than she had thought. The legs began to slide towards the floor and June very smartly moved back round the bed as Danny twisted awkwardly. She then supported the weight until the feet finally reached the floor and Danny could
move to the front and lift their patient into the side chair.

“Well now, that wasn’t perhaps the best way of getting you sitting up. It could have led to an accident . Next time let us take the initiative.” June was concerned for the woman rather than very annoyed, yet she came across as rather officious. Great.ma sat in the chair completely unconcerned about this. She had gained what she had wanted for a few days now, and was not going to harbour any dissident feelings.

She smiled at June in a way to imply that the nurse was still in charge. June reacted by smiling back and coming round to adjust her cushions.

“Are you comfortable? Let me se if I can make you more so.” She fussed around and Great 'ma had to admit that she had settled the cushions around her in a way that gave much more support. She thought to herself that she must give them credit for knowing what they were about. It had only been her feeling that she would be stopped from sitting up that had caused her to be so impetuous.

She remembered that Judith had often said that she was far too impetuous and thought that she had spent the fortnight drifting from the present to the past in a way that sometimes made it difficult for her to know which was which.

While the pair carried on with their job she began to speculate on what it was that had caught Jeffrey’s interest. No doubt the jotter that Delphine had given him was not the one with her rather explicit love notes and poems that he must have got hold of to start with.

It was not Jeffrey however who entered when the door opened some time after the departure of Danny and June. Cynthia cautiously moved into the room and then more jauntily approached the chair in which Great’ma was sitting.

“Are you comfortable like that? You seem a bit lop-sided. Let me add more cushions.”

So saying she picked up some from the settee and tucked them around the frail form. “I think you had better be put back to bed. I’ll shout for someone.”

She moved to the door, opened it purposefully and then screeched a resounding yell into the passage.

“If that doesn’t move someone I don’t know what will.”

Great’ma, who hadn’t been too uncomfortable, chuckled to herself. She did not know this daughter of Delphine’s very well although she could recognise to some extent the baby she had helped look after in the early days of the child’s life.

There was the sound of quick steps in the passage heralding the arrival of Danny and June, back from a coffee break in the kitchen.

“We were just coming back to you”, June said.

“I was alright,” Great’ma said, “We have our impatient youth to deal with here”. This was said with a smile at Cynthia, who smiled back.

She was now helped back into bed without much fuss and left to the gaze of her Great Granddaughter.

“I’m not sure why I want to talk to you. Jeffrey says you are different from what we imagine. Well it’s difficult to put into simple words what he was saying, but I need to tell someone what is on my mind. It’s so exciting for me and I feel if I tell anyone it becomes a silliness. I wonder if you will understand?” Cynthia said.

“Well. Get on with telling me and we might begin to get to some understanding. At the moment I feel in the dark, but intrigued,” was the answer.

“I’m going to marry Jeffrey. When he gets a bit older that is. Now I don’t expect you will understand how I feel. It is in part – a great part that is.. sex. I keep getting ...well I’d better not go into details.”

Great ma looked at her a bit more closely and thought that if she could have been in her thoughts but moments ago she would not feel any hesitation. How could you say to this young person that your own thoughts had been on the passionate response to Edward..an old wrinkled woman remembering young far away times.. No the present day interpretation of how women were then has to be within the confines of the suppressed and dependent wife. If there was any sanity left in the world it would be obvious that the body, whether man’s or women’s, undermined all that supposed indoctrination that was apparent in what was written at the time.

“Why are you smiling? I am quite serious.”

”Yes, I know and I will tell you something that may help you to get on with it. I had a friend, whose name escapes me at the moment...'' Then,after a pause, “No Deirdre, that’s it. She was younger than me, but we had a great time together with a lot of laughter. Anyway she said she had been to see a Clark Gable film. We are going back to the Forties or Fifties... I don’t know what film it was. He was getting intimate with the heroine it seems and my friend got extremely flushed and excited.”

Great’ ma began to laugh quietly at first, then with great busts of merriment, the laughter defying the frailty of the body. There was a moment of amazement before Cynthia joined in.

After they managed to get themselves under control, Great’ ma said “Some elderly people might be thinking about crumbs under the settee, others have memories more personal to the realities of their experience. Don’t get confined to present interpretations...Jeffrey has the knack and perhaps he thinks you can have the same awareness.”

The change in Cynthia was very apparent. From arriving in a rather theatrical manner she became very serious.
“You see, I see him ferreting about, both in ideas and concrete things, and I get this reaction. I want to interfere with him.”

“Ferret about in him?”

“Oh. You are lovely.”

For a moment Great ‘ma was apprehensive. How could you convey the difficulty when your sensuous response undermined what you might call principles, but are better understood as tenets by which to live. I liked freedom when in the act with Edward but afterwards with John there was always a negative reaction. Difficult to define how this caused him such a feeling of depression. There seemed no rational explanation. I remember puzzling at that. All the interpretations. Was it waste sometimes for a man? The negation of creation? I never thought it out.

Cynthia was saying “I get excited just by the thought of him and it fits with how I view myself. It’s not that I think of myself as his hand maiden, or anything like that. He releases in me such marvellous creativeness that I can’t wait to get on the computer.”

“He is only fifteen?”

“Yes and he might change. God, I do want him to remain the same. Do you think he will?”

Great ‘ma wanted to tell her to think in terms of generations of women gone before, but she suddenly felt very tired and knew it was beyond her.

“Come and see me again. I need to rest.”

Cynthia accepted this. Everyone had been instructed on not over taxing this old lady. Going away she felt the impact of much more than the present generation. “Where have I come from?” It was something to talk to Jeffrey about. I wonder how he would react if I told him I wanted to put my hand in his trousers.”
………

Great ‘ma woke the next morning wondering how one conveys the confident sensation of sex with a husband in the present climate. The media gets to you even in old age. The times are rife with sex and it is impossible to filter it out. In fact I don’t want to, she thought. Sex, or making love? I know I have been loved and I have had very sexy experiences with a man. Lying in bed, knowing, anticipating. And then love, even with Edward, not always the same.

Expressions of his angst, or mine. Differences.

And John. Why did we marry? He measured himself against my first marriage. A hopeless thing. Intelligent, capable, worldly. He shone in the world and I disappointed him. His daughter, Sophie. How she resented everything. Not just me, my children, but an indescribable force that worked against her.

We gave her a room of her own and she complained that she was segregated from the family. Hilda offered the share of her room and that worked well. Hilda became her confident, respecting her confidence and refusing to share any understanding she might have imbibed, which was often irritating when Sophie had one of her histrionic turns. My children were not unhappy when John and I finally decided to part.

Then I found his Sophie, sitting on the edge of her bed, weeping and only after a contracted session with her and Hilda did I realise she was worried about what would happen to her.

“I know you won’t want me to stay here. What will happen to me?” She eventually said.

In all honesty I had thought she would want to go with her father. One of the tenets she had lived by with us was that she was his daughter, and that was of paramount importance to her. Then I had to readjust my thinking.
I can even now remember her getting herself fussily ready to go off to tea at the Ritz, or any other exciting outing, with her father. Hilda reassuring her, and praising her, as she prepared herself for these great treats.
“Just tell me exactly want you want to happen from your point of view,'' I said.

Hilda, I subsequently recognised, knew this to be too definite a request, and the discussion became much more on how I viewed this vulnerable individual. There was nothing innately antagonistic in me towards her. Rather is was that she puzzled me. In hind sight, of course, that was exactly what she wanted to do. In essence I said that her home was with us for as long as she wished. This was not enough. We had too declare that we wanted above all else to need her to stay with us. Which, of course, we said was the case. It did work out much better than my daughters and I had thought, and again it was due to that daughter of mine who seemed to have least in common with myself.

She was a smiling child, my Hilda – my puzzle. Not having that wry, humorous relationship that was so natural with the other two. Always the one left out from their more intimate times. She was the loving one. Sometimes she made me even feel guilty…. Something not done, yet hardly knowing what.

………………….


These last weeks had been very tiring at times. At weekends there seemed to be so many family members calling in as well as some who classed themselves as friends, each wanting a time with her. Discussion as to whether she should sell her house. Delphine monitoring all. Sometimes with impatience. That ironic twist to her mouth when visitors instructed her on how far they had come, but that it was nothing in that they had been so glad to hear that ‘Great ma was still with us’ .

Sensing, as I do, those that are wondering how much I have to ‘leave’. Great ‘ma thought.

Now there seemed to be a lull in the visits. Some so good., some ridiculous. Like the man who arrived claiming such affection between them. She could not place him but let him kiss her cheek and had laughed with Jeffrey when the boy informed her that he was from the shop where she had taken her shoes to be mended. All dressed up without that brown apron thing he always wore she had been unable to place him.

And all the time, Jeffrey, coming to ask questions. He had been very interested in her jottings about existence. He had read out to her a piece she had written when trying to come to terms with her life. It went back many years and even now she liked the views expressed.

We are conductors of thought, she had written, like metal is a conductor of electricity. Everything was there in abstract and the big bang was the effort to become concrete, to experience. Evolution was the response to the environment. The will to know. Survival of the fittest being those that got the response right.

He had also told her that Cynthia was becoming very odd, or so some seemed to think. Was Great ‘ma aware of this? Great ‘ma, she had replied, was oblivious to all that went on outside this room. He, himself, found her very good fun.
Jeffrey beside her bed read quietly while seeming to keep watch on her. She looked out at him and waved a hand.

He was at once attentive.

“What is it?”

“What are you reading now?”

“Oh this bit is just about the dog you had when you were first married.''

“Yes it was a misshapen thing which Edward picked up somewhere. Arrived full of fleas and I had to deal with it. I didn’t know what to do, but my sister Judith took over. She loved the dog as much as Edward did. I found him comical and I don’t think the dog liked that.”

“You remember it all? I was really interested in the way you wrote about the big bang. What made you think of that?”

“Well I read this book on the development of the nervous system and it struck me that the way one cell living organisms changed they must have been aware of their environment. I mean why develop a light sensitive patch unless you know the light is there. The same thing.. neat hairs on each side of the cell. There’s another fact. The little tiny cells are encased in a ring of nerves. They must have been able to sense currents and light... that sort of thing. But it’s only my way of looking at things. Don’t get carried away with what’s written there. I’ve always liked my own ideas about things.”

Jeffrey had closed the notebook and looked toward the window.

“Now what?” his great grandma asked.

“Its Cynthia. She was having such a row with aunty Delphine. I have never heard them like that before. She said her mother was not kind to people and that she wouldn’t tell the truth. I like Cynthia so much – she makes me laugh, but some of the family think she is just stupid.”

“Do you know what it was about?”

“She doesn’t think Uncle David is her father.”

“Well he is.”

“I heard her say that she was two years old when they married and that her Dad was not the sort who would leave someone to have his baby by herself. She wants to know the truth, because she wants to know where her oddity comes from. She is a bit odd, you know...though I really like her. She seems less concentrated than other people.”

Great’ma registered the unusual word concentrated, at the same time thinking how apt it was in relation to other people she had known.

Aspects from bygone generations coming to the fore in different combinations. Hilda, with aspects of Edward’s Aunt... but she had been a busybody, apart from very taxing to talk to. Or rather listen to. Delphine with that abstraction that reminds me of my sister Judith. And Cynthia...my own daughter ‘Dotty’. She used to mimic poor Sophie.
Every one, in fact. How angry John was when he heard himself laying down the law through her mobile and generous mouth.

She wasn’t pretty, but the house came alive with her around. People said she was like her father, Edward, but she was not really like him. He was collected and knew what he wanted. Dotty was all over the place. Interested here, there and everywhere. Not concentrated. Yes, there are echoes of her in Cynthia, which I hadn’t thought of before.
Yet it’s again not the same... there is more thought in Cynthia than in my Dotty.

Edward was optimistic, the glass half full, not an obvious Yorkshire man. Great’ma shuddered.

“What is it?” The ever watchful Jeffrey asked.

Great’ma had had a sudden flash back to those other times. Waking in the night with Edward sweating and grunting. She would wake him as gently as possible and wrap her arms round him, often crying. He would soon be saying, “Its okay, its okay.”

“Why aren’t you at school?” she said, side-stepping his question.

“Its Saturday,” came the reply.

“Oh. But you are here almost every day.”

“I come after school. Our house is only about a mile away. I come on my bike. Do you know anything about Cynthia’s father?”

“Jeffrey, David is her father.”

“I said I thought he was, but she got angry with me and I didn’t like that. Why would she think he isn’t?”

“Well she’s right that he isn’t the type of man to leave a woman in such a situation. Look just forget it at the moment. Don’t say anything to her, I’ll see what I can do. Now I want some rest, so go away.”

“I said, perhaps he didn’t know. She just gave me a withering glance and swept back into the house. I’m going, I’m going” He took hold of her waving hand, kissed it and laughing, quit the room, still quietly closing the door behind him.

Great’ma had just wanted to get him to go so that she could have her thoughts to herself, but within seconds was again asleep.

She had got used to the weekday mornings. Liking the settled, timetable order that was now established. An early cup of tea with Delphine, David often coming in with her. Such a large man and quiet who seemed to be trying to make himself smaller, which would make people think he was not sure of himself. They would be mistaken Always looking to Delphine as they came into the room. Aware, no doubt, of her mixed feelings about having me in the house, Great’ma thought. Then June and David’s morning exertions on her behalf. Getting her out of bed and comfortable. Next a quiet pause, the house seeming just waiting for people to come back on stage. Hilda arriving with breakfast, talking all the time in disjointed sentences. Coffee time. June would arrive again to see her back into bed.

The weekends were different, more confusing, with the house full of distractive murmurings. Doors closing; people suddenly calling. This tired her, but did not stop her from feeling exasperated at being closed off from the rest of the house. Of course she was stronger, but only as fit as a very elderly person ever could be. She often looked with surprise at her papery skin and thin veined legs as she was prepared for the day by her two cheery nurses. So often was her mind full of days of long ago, that it was a wrench to come back to the present and face the fact that all that young life, full of incident, was a long way passed.

The door was suddenly flung back on its hinges, waking Great’ma with a start. For a moment she was again disorientated watching as a young child moved with jaunty speed across to the bed and hoisted himself beside her as she tried to quickly move her legs out of the way.

“We’ve come to see yeah.” He said readjusting himself even as he settled so that he didn’t sit on her.

“Yes. I see. Who are you?”

“Mum’s got these photos my Gran had to show you. She died in February and gave this box of them to me Mum. She told Auntie Hilda and she said to bring them.”

They both looked towards the door as a slight noise was heard.

“That’s my sister.” The boy said “She doesn’t like old people, they give her the creeps. She’s silly.”

The girl came further into the room and said “You do tell fibs. I just couldn’t be with Gran. She was not my Gran anymore.”

She primly looked at Great’ma. “We are related to you. Gran used to live in Yorkshire when she was a little girl and the photos are of relations there. Some of them very old.”

“Why are you talking all posh?” the boy said and the girl blushed and left the room, still leaving the door open.

Great’ma was smiling, thoroughly enjoying the interruption.

“Yer looking a lot better now. Gran was always taking her teeth out. Me dad said he didn’t know how me mum coped. She ‘ad to go to the ‘ome in the end. But me big sister said she should have sent her earlier. You look really old don’t you. Much older than me Gran. My brother couldn’t come. He’s got a match this morning.”

“Where have you come from and what sort of match?”

“Kings Lynn. He plays for the town now. He’s young to be in the team though. They’re playing away today. I don’t’ go watch them very often when they play away, so I come with me mum today.”

“It’s football, is it?”

“Yeah, of course.” He said, getting off the bed and beginning to explore the room.

“This is a big house... ours is not small like some of me friends’, but this is much bigger. Mum says you have a swimming pool ‘ere. I bought me trunks... would you let me swim? I like swimming better than anything.”

Great’ma lifted her hand, having got used to people responding to the gesture, but this imp of a person did not understand and waved back at her.

He was looking out of the window.

“I can’t see any pool from ‘ere,”he said.

“Its indoors on the other side of the ‘ouse. You will have to ask Auntie ‘ilda about swimming.”

“Mum makes me say Hilda – she says its respect. She said I’d ‘ave to ask you to swim. You’ll have to ask Auntie, that’s what she said.”

“Yes well, you will find the house full of Aunties. I don’t even remember half of them myself.”

“Yeah. Mum says you’re special... she says you wont remember ‘er. She saw you once at a big family party. She’s was always on about it. Dad would get cross and tell ‘er to give it a rest.”

At the noise of other people arriving, both turned towards the door. Hilda, rather flustered, came through the open door, followed by a man and woman, who she kept looking towards and smiling.

“Oh, there you are,” she said to the boy. Then to Great’ma “This is Joe, and Margot and Rupert, his mum and dad. Turning, she beckoned to the girl still at the door. “And this is Alice.” Adding “Come on dear,” in an encouraging way.

The girl stayed where she was.

Delphine then appeared, staying at the door, putting her hand on Alice’s shoulder. She looked toward Great’ma and shrugged, as the young girl looked up at her.

“Joe wants to know if he can swim in the pool. Can he?”

Margot gave a worried look toward Delphine and said to Joe “I told you not to bring your swimming things. This is not a public place.” To Delphine she directly added “I told him.”

She replied, “I don’t believe he listens much does he? But he is quite welcome to use the pool.”

Joe went up to Great’ma in the bed and Said “Are you gonna watch me. I’m good yer know.”

His mum started to say something when the gruff voice of his dad interrupted as he said “’ave yer got a wheelchair? If not I can carry yer there.”

Hilda looked apologetically at Delphine, but was relieved to see her rather rueful smile and then back at Great’ma, while she looked at this very wirery man and wondered at his confidence. His build belied his low vibrating voice.

He saw her doubt and told her she needn’t worry as he was stronger than he looked.

While Hilda stood, for once bereft of words, Delphine came right into the room and told her to take them all to the pool, while she had a word with Great’ma. As they left, Rupert said he would stay as he knew his son wanted to show the old lady how good he was.

Delphine, eyebrows raised, looked to Great’ma to see her reaction.

“Have we got a wheelchair?” she asked, at which her grand daughter shook her head.

“Look, is this your chair?” Rupert said, “Let’s get yer into it, and I’ll carry you through that way. How far is it to this pool?”

“The other side of the house.” was the answer.

Great’ma started to get out of the bed and Delphine quickly went to her side.

“She isn’t that strong,” she sharply informed the man.

Smiling he merely helped ‘the old lady’, edging Delphine out of the way as he did so and once she was settled comfortably said, “Lead the way.” And, as they went forward reconciled Delphine to him by adding. “You are alright. It’s not everyone who would be so easy.”

Great’ma wondered whether they had any choice in the matter. She realised she was already feeling tired but what did it matter, she could easily fall asleep by the pool. That’s if Joe let her. Why he wanted her there she couldn’t fathom. But even in his house, where news of the family was always being forwarded to them by Auntie Hilda, This Great-Great Aunt’s reputation was of interest to all who lived there.

Delphine viewed the whole experience with a satirical eye, contrasting the careful, ordered , almost, in some cases, over subservient approach of all the visitors who had gone before, with the present situation and began to feel it rather refreshing. The man, slightly suffering with his burden, had an air about him that impressed.

Alice had hung back and quietly stepped in behind the other two. She was of an age to be mortified by some of her family’s attributes, and had watched the whole performance with that stance of the young which had experienced different behaviour patterns among her friend’s families. Her brother, getting first to the aunt, had, she thought, given a very different impression than she had wanted.

Great’ma faced forward, riding chest high and feeling as if in an important procession. She gave herself up to chance. She had vision of herself propelled forward suddenly to land on her face. ‘Fell flat on her face’ she could hear the reports. ‘What on earth was Delphine thinking.’ She began to chuckle.

“Could you have imagined this Delphine, when I was lying there with everyone ready to say their parting goodbyes?”
Rupert, his voice near her ear responded to her chuckle, with a short laugh and glancing back at Delphine remarked that she was a really grand old girl.

At this point they were entering the swimming pool area and Delphine exploded with laughter, not sure if it wasn’t slight hysteria.

Hilda saw with relief the smiling aura of the party and excused herself, murmuring as she did so that she needed to see to the lunch.

“Are we staying?” Rupert asked.

“Of course,” Delphine answered.

Great’ma quickly checked her expression and was amused to get in return that familiar raised eyebrows look. She also registered the look on Alice’s face, as the young girl noted all that went on around her.

Joe was shouting from the pool, demanding that everyone watched his performance. It was very eye catching. The dive into the pool. Then, for almost the length of it, the small body remaining under the water flipping along more like the beaver’s smooth display one saw on film.

His bag was on one of the loungers. This towel spread on the next. On this there were displayed various badges, all giving evidence of his young ability.

Alice, deciding at this point to establish a presence, bought the towel to Great’ma and without saying anything put it in her lap.

“Thank you dear.” She said and held out her hand. The girl took it in her own, the second young person to realise the fragility of the touch. She responded to the approach and the two smiled at each other.

“Are yer watching,” burst from the pool. Great’ma nodded and waved, still holding Alice’s hand. She could understand both the pride in a brother and the competition felt.

To be continued.


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