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A Shout From The Attic: An Unlikely Hero

...I remember standing at Granddad’s knee asking questions of him. He sat on a kitchen chair at the end of the table, furthest from the crackling coal fire. He knew his place. His answers were thoughtful, usually true, and delivered without haste. No one else engaged him in any discussion. As I grew older, I became aware that some of his answers were works of imagination and fiction...

Ronnie Bray recalls his grandfather with deep affection.

To read earlier chapters of Ronnie's autobiography - a work in progress - please click on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page.

He was my friend


Granddad and I shared the little attic bedroom. Lodgers occupied the big front bedroom on the first floor and the big attic room on the second floor where the steps narrowed for past servants. Going to bed involved the longest walk in the house, because the trip started in the cellar. Sleeping in the attic was perfect training for lighthouse keepers, not only because of the vertical distance, but also because of its isolation.

The furnishings and appointments of the house were basic; the last gasp of Victoriana, offering minimal comfort while serving to remind one of the temporary nature of one’s welcome. I lived there for the thick end of seventeen years without feeling accepted. To feel tolerated was very heaven, but rare.

The front room - Nanny’s sanctum sanctori on the ground floor- had a lush Persian carpet, brocade curtains, and a three-piece suite whose settee converted into a double bed. No one shared its comforts with her. Only once did I sit in a chair in her room that boasted the coveted Pianola, a radio that never played, and a clockwork gramophone that remained permanently silent. To enter the room one stood outside, not a little fearful, knocked at the door and waited for the stentorian command, “Come in!”

Admitted to the Presence, one’s petition was delivered in suitably hushed and reverent tones. It was usually granted. I sometimes think, at the luxury of distance, that Nanny may have been a lot nicer than she appeared, but no one got close enough to find out. Granddad was banished to the cellar-living room and the attic bedroom. He never entered the Middle Kingdom.

I remember standing at Granddad’s knee asking questions of him. He sat on a kitchen chair at the end of the table, furthest from the crackling coal fire. He knew his place. His answers were thoughtful, usually true, and delivered without haste. No one else engaged him in any discussion. As I grew older, I became aware that some of his answers were works of imagination and fiction. It was a game I learned to play to amuse the lights of my life, my sweet grandchildren.

Any love that had existed between my grandparents was gone long before I came. The family whisper is that he philandered when Nanny was giving birth to Auntie Nora, but René says Nan told her it was because he pawned her wedding ring and ruined her shop business. Whatever the cause, he remained forever unforgiven.

Although he worked with my stepfather, and walked to and from work with him each day, in the house they did not interact socially. My grandfather lived a solitary life, much as I did, but for a different reason. Whatever the offence, might be in nanny’s domain, there was but a single punishment - ostracism.

In my stumbling efforts to fit the demanding profile of a perfect grandparent, if I don’t know the answer to a child’s question, I make something up. Always having the answer, whatever the question does my credit good, and I will probably be dead, buried, and forgotten before I’m rumbled. My grandfather taught me well.

What endeared Granddad to me was that he always had time to talk to me. He seemed to know everything. He was a very small, inoffensive man with a propensity to ‘chunter’. I have learned that chuntering is a form of speaking without saying anything. No one can disagree with chunter. Grandma understood it to be the desperate attempt of sub-species to impress his opinion on the gathering. Nanny always squashed his opinion with a savage “Stop your bloody chuntering!”

His was a lost cause, and all one can do with one of those is ‘chunter.’ In keeping with the standard practice of our family, no one paid him any heed except me. I knew what he was going through.

He never could bring himself to stop. It was the last great act of defiance left open to him. He could not levy economic or moral sanction, since he had no money on the one hand, or possession of the moral high ground on the other. His was a lost cause and all one can do with one of those is chunter about it. In keeping with the standard practice of our family circle, no one paid him any heed except me. I knew what he was going through. If grandmothers are a requirement, and I believe they are, they should be affectionate and uncritical.

Grandparents should be attractive, generous, and benign dispensers of hugs, kisses and all the trappings of love. In addition, their pockets should be permanently full of irresistible sugary treats. My grandparents had no commitment to those ideals. They were preoccupied with their own heavy burdens and disappointments that kept them from seeing the needs of small fry.

Though Granddad imparted no skills to me, left me no pearls of wisdom, did not share his Werther’s Originals, and never took me anywhere, the times he spent talking to me in the cellar sitting room made the brightest and warmest memories, standing out like oases of reality in a desolate and denying landscape.

Our conversations were not marathons, but for a few moments, I was somebody. He affirmed my humanity through the medium of simple encounter. Granddad never knew how much his words meant to me, for I had not the words to tell him. It may be that he was using me to maintain his own humanity, and that what I took from the encounters was mere spin-off. I shall never know, but I am inclined to the view that he was moved by simple kindness for a struggling boy, whose circumstances, to some extent, mirrored his own, and for whom he had compassion tinged with no small sorrow.

He died while I was in prison. Grandma had long predeceased him, dying when I was soldiering in Cyprus. He had become confused, and had deteriorated to the point of self-neglect due to his age. Although he was the only adult male with whom I had established any kind of emotional bond, I was refused leave to attend his funeral. He lived lonely and he died lonely. I would have liked to have been present to weep over him.

Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that
thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die…”

No life should be regarded as insignificant, nor any child made to feel so, when simple acts of kindness can soothe hurt souls, and make the unloved feel less so.

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