Every weekday, his daughter, Carla, picks him up, and they visit Andrea. Heather View is a handsome stone building, a former vicarage, in the North York Moors. Andrea is in the day room, on her own, looking out of a large bay window. It always makes Vic feel off kilter seeing how composed his wife looks in this alien environment, as if it’s him displaced and in need, not her. He takes a chair beside her, Carla opposite. Andrea’s eyes sparkle without recognition. In fresh blouse and skirt, hair washed and fluffy, she smells clean as an apple. She returns her attention to the view, a river and woods, the moors in the distance.
‘Lovely, isn’t it?’ Andrea says. ‘The gardener’s done a smashing job.’
‘Yes, lovely.’ Carla humours Andrea’s belief that she owns Heather View, the surrounding grounds. ‘It’s really nice here.’
‘And, what’s more, they don’t charge a penny. Can you believe that?’ She chuckles, and interweaves her fingers, tapping her thumbs together. ‘Really, I must give them something. Can’t work for nothing, can they?’
Vic and Carla laugh with her. Medicated high, but it’s good to see her happy. The last few months of caring for her at home were a nightmare for Vic. Even with the support of the mental health nurse, and daily visits by carers who managed Andrea’s intimate care, he’d been unable to keep up with her demands all hours of the day and night, her escalating paranoia and violence. Twice she’d clawed him, drawing blood. Once she’d swiped him across the face with a spatula. The final time, thinking him an intruder, she’d charged at him with a kitchen knife.
Olita, an auxiliary, brings tea and biscuits.
‘Thank you, darling,’ Andrea says. ‘How much do I owe you?’
‘Nothing,’ Olita says. ‘No charge for being so good.’
Carla reaches for Andrea’s hand, which stiffens as if something repellent has crawled onto her skin.
‘It’s alright, M…,’ Carla stops short of saying Mother, aware of how it confuses and upsets Andrea. Embarrassed, she shares a subdued smile with Olita. ‘It’s all free, here. All expenses covered.’
‘Really?’ Andrea looks round, eyes wide. ‘You must thank them for me.’ In the next breath, she turns to Olita. ‘I’m paying you enough, dear, aren’t I? You mustn’t go short.’
Olita smiles at Vic. She kisses her fingertips and places them gently on Andrea’s forehead. ‘What a sweetheart.’
In return, Andrea stares up at her with an expression so open and trusting, Vic has to look away.
‘Such a nice girl,’ Andrea says to him when Olita has gone. ‘Is she a relative of yours?’
Roxy Music’s Dance Away comes on the radio during the journey home.
‘This takes me back,’ Vic says.
The Tuxedo Princess, a nightclub housed in a former car ferry docked near the Tyne Bridge, Newcastle. He remembers the moment they embraced on deck: the ship lights glossing the river, her lacquered hair cocooning his face, the soft warmth of her body as Bryan Ferry crooned into the cold night.
Trees flash past and the car veers towards the white line.
Carla eases off the accelerator. ‘She’s in the right place.’
He switches off the radio, hesitates, but then can’t help himself. ‘It would be nice to take Sammy to see her sometime.’
‘Oh, please Dad!’
‘Just a thought.’
Carla’s face flushes. ‘I thought we’d been through all that. Isn’t it bad enough that she doesn’t know her own daughter? I couldn’t bear that for Sammy.’
Vic still can’t understand the harm but thinks better of pressing her on the matter.
Carla clears her throat. ‘Listen, I’ve got to be somewhere tomorrow night. How about I bring Sammy round?’
‘Maybe, Sammy could stay over, and I’ll pick him up Sunday morning.’
‘Must be important,’ Vic says with a wry smile. Whoever it is, it won’t take much to be a step-up from Sammy’s father, Dave, who walked out before Sammy was born.
‘I’ll bring him over about seven,’ Carla says, her neck mottled pink, eyes now fixed on the road.
Saturday morning, Vic mows the lawn. Afterwards, he takes the grass clippings to the compost bin at bottom of the garden where a fence separates his garden from a farmer’s field. There are bull calves in the field. They huddle together close to the fence, curious and jumpy, staring at him with big dark eyes. They are here every summer, for a few short months, and then disappear as if rustled in the night. Andrea couldn’t stand it. Their gaze, she said, as if they know what’s in store. Their hides gleam in the sun, black tongues licking over wet snouts, shit sliding under their tails. If Vic moves, the calves move. When he stops, they stop. If he advances, they back off, but only fractionally, before they crowd round again and resume their game of staring him down. Back and forth along the fence, they follow him. The air soured by the smell of dung.
Later, he goes to the garage to get the barbeque. While he’s there he collects the mini-football set bought specially for Sammy’s first stay-over. He pegs the net down into the lawn and rolls the ball into it. Back in the kitchen, he lays out frozen sausages and burgers on a tray to defrost. An hour before Sammy’s due to arrive, he fires up the barbeque.
As agreed, Carla drops Sammy off at seven. She delivers chapter and verse. Sammy’s bedtime is strictly no later than nine. He won’t sleep without White Rabbit. Dim the bedroom light but leave the door open, the landing light on.
Sammy’s bathed and in his pyjamas and slippers. His satchel contains overnight things and clothes for the morning. A damp lick of hair smears his forehead, the rest feathering out into bunches of cute ringlets that remind Vic of Carla when she was little. He can see his daughter, also, in the downy contours of Sammy’s face, the way his mouth slants to one side before he smiles, and the haughty peak of his nose. The steady, penetrating gaze of his hazel eyes is pure Carla.
‘Yes, okay,’ Vic replies to each instruction. ‘We’ll be fine.’
He looks at Carla. Her turquoise dress and freckled shoulders. Hair done up in a chignon, mouth painted a dusty pink. Matching fingernails. Honeysuckle sweetness fills the room. Beautiful. As hopeful as he’s seen her in a long time.
They stand on the doorstep to wave Carla off. After she drives away, Vic changes Sammy’s slippers for canvas shoes he finds in the satchel. In the back garden the barbeque coals glow beneath a layer of white ash. It’s a lovely summer’s evening. Long violet shadows border the field beyond the garden. A galaxy of bugs flits in lowering rakes of sunlight. The calves are soft mounds melting into the grass or lazily grazing.
Andrea loved a barbeque. While Vic attends to the sausages and burgers he wishes she was here now, drinking a glass of white wine and watching Sammy kick a football into the net.
In between turning the meat, Vic plays in goal, pretending to trip over the ball, or dive the wrong way to allow Sammy to score. Sammy laughs. When the ball runs away to the bottom of the garden, Sammy chases after it and notices the calves in the field. Vic hoists him onto his shoulders for a better view. As they look, the calves approach.
Sammy makes him trot up and down the fence like he did earlier.
‘Giddy up, Grandad!’
Sammy giggles as the calves skitter, hooves pounding the turf. Vic’s heart hammers under his ribs and he has to stop for breath.
When it’s time to eat, Sammy leaves most of his hot dog. Had Andrea been there, she would’ve made him sit and finish his food before any more play-time, but Vic is a push-over. It was the same with Carla, always leaving Andrea to act the part of exasperated disciplinarian. Vic smiles. His burger gums the roof of his mouth with grease. He puts it down on his plate.
They go inside. He turns on the cartoon channel for Sammy while he clears up. Later, when the dish washer beeps, Vic goes to turn it off, but, on his return to the sitting room, Sammy isn’t there.
‘Sammy?’ Vic sweeps downstairs and then goes upstairs.
He searches each bedroom.
‘Okay, Sammy,’ he says on the landing. ‘You’ve won.’
Finally, he goes into the bathroom where a window overlooks the back garden. Sammy’s at the top of fence. The window glued shut with old paint, Vic resorts to hammering on the pane as Sammy teeters and falls into the adjoining field.
Vic rushes down the stairs, into the garden, pictures of Sammy trampled to a pulp racing through his head. The inquisitive calves have formed a circle around the prostrate shape of his grandson, nosing forward, snouts blustering.
Vic attempts to climb the fence, shaking with the effort. How did a three-year-old manage when he can’t? But then, Sammy stirs and sits up. Astounded, Vic imagines Sammy bones, pliant and biddable, settling inside his body, and wonders at the elasticity of his love for his grandson, stretching and stretching, unbreakable. Sammy tears up handfuls of grass and offers it to the tentative muzzles of the calves. ‘Good cow,’ he says as their tongues take it from his hand to grind under their slow jaws.
‘Sammy? You okay?’
Sammy stands and, as if it’s the most commonplace thing, nudges his way through the ring of calves, looking up with a wide grin of stubby milk teeth.
Back in the house, Vic checks him over. Amazingly, not a graze, nor a bruise. He thinks about calling Carla but doesn’t want to interrupt her evening. He lays Sammy on the sofa in front of the TV. In little time at all, Sammy’s fast asleep, his breath hardly audible, smooth and steady.
By contrast, Vic becomes restless. He decides it’s best to ring Carla, after all. He picks up the phone but then puts it down again. ‘Andrea,’ he murmurs to his absent wife. ‘What should I do?’
He could murder a drink but instead picks up a photo album from a bookshelf and flicks through the pages. The photographs are mostly of Carla growing up: birthday parties; opening Christmas presents; holidays. In one particular photograph, Carla must’ve been about Sammy’s age. He looks at Sammy, his lips fluttering like the whisper of crumpled tissue. The resemblance is uncanny. Vic remembers the day, his birthday. As usual, Andrea was the photographer, the documenter standing out of the frame. He and Carla are sitting at a picnic table near the edge of a pond; delighted faces turned to a metallic-green dragonfly alighted on the table. Vic stares at the dragonfly photograph for a while and then snaps the album shut.
He stands and pulls White Rabbit from Sammy’s satchel. After tucking the soft bundle in beside his grandson, he sits back down. But it’s no use sitting, waiting. Something compels him to carry Sammy, half-asleep, to his car. He hasn’t got a child’s seat, but surely it’s safe enough to put him on the back seat with a cushion under him? White Rabbit cradled in his arms.
He doesn’t know where he’s going, but the act of driving is a benediction in its quiet rhythm. The outside bleaches to evening. He thinks after a few miles that he’s going to Carla’s house, where he’ll wait for her to return—even if she’s with her date and it ruins it for her—and deliver her son safely. But at the roundabout, instead of the turn for Carla’s house, he takes the exit onto a B road into North Yorkshire.
It’s almost dark when they arrive at Heather View. Sammy’s asleep until he cuts the engine. He yawns, rubbing his eyes. ‘Where are we?’ He looks out the car window at the yellow lit windowpanes of the old vicarage.
‘I’ve brought you to see somebody.’
Vic doesn’t answer. He gets out the car and opens the rear door. Sammy tramples over White Rabbit, fallen into the foot well, and takes Vic’s hand as they walk to the main reception.
In the vestibule Vic signs the visitors’ book and presses the buzzer on the security door. With many of its residents in terminal decline, the care home is open 24 hours a day to visitors. Vic’s pleased to see Olita’s familiar face appear at the door.
‘We’ve another guest, I see,’ she says. ‘Isn’t it past your bedtime, little man?’
Sammy tucks behind Vic’s leg.
‘This’s my grandson, Sammy,’ Vic says. ‘Say hello, Sammy.’
Sammy mumbles, hello, and they go to the lift.
‘Won’t be long,’ Vic says to Olita, controlling an urge to explain himself: his wife hasn’t seen her grandson since he was born. Something he intends to put right.
When Vic allows him to press the button, Sammy perks up. The lift takes them to the second floor. In the empty corridor there’s a smell of gravy and disinfectant. A nurse, working in an office, doesn’t stir from her computer screen when they walk past. Outside Andrea’s room, a trolley is stacked with dirty plates, cutlery soaking in a bucket of grey, soapy water. The door’s open, the light inside dimmed.
Sammy peers into the room. Only the foot of the bed is visible from the doorway. ‘Who’s here?’ he asks.
Vic taps on the door.
Andrea’s sleeping head is propped on two stiff pillows. Her hands clutch the edge of the duvet. She looks old. Her illness, the inevitability of what lies ahead, has created a hazy, unfathomable distance between them. He doesn’t recognise her, or know himself.
‘Who is it?’ Sammy asks.
‘My wife, Andrea. Your Grandma.’
‘Grandma,’ Sammy repeats, testing the word in his mouth. ‘Who’s Grandma?’
Vic doesn’t know what to say. He approaches the bed and gently shakes Andrea’s shoulder. ‘Andrea, love. Look who I’ve brought to see you.’
At first, Andrea doesn’t rouse. Outside the room, a distressed voice, calling for the nurse, echoes down the deserted corridor. He tries again.
‘Andrea, it’s me, Vic, come to see you, with little Sammy.’
‘Grandma,’ Sammy joins in, and then more loudly, ‘Wake up.’
Andrea’s eyes crack open. Her lips close and her nostrils take a soft draught of air. She blinks and stares through the dimness, her eyes removed and unaware.
‘Grandma,’ Sammy says, reducing his voice to a whisper.
Vic smiles and wonders at his accommodating grandson. He thinks back to earlier that day and Sammy’s fearlessness among the bull calves and wonders at the ease at which he accepts this bizarre situation thrust upon him, this feeble, unknown person called Grandma.
Andrea lifts her head from the pillow and looks at Sammy. It takes her a moment to register before her eyes brighten and she speaks: ‘Carla,’ she says. ‘You’ve come to see me.’
She turns to Vic, her expression grateful and spirited. ‘How wonderful, to see my child after all these years,’ she says. ‘Thank you. Oh, thank you, so much.’
With arms outstretched, she beckons Sammy to come closer.
‘Come here, my little pet.’
And, when Sammy looks up at him for approval, Vic, with a jittery exhalation and the lightest touch on Sammy’s shoulder, ushers him forward.
© Jim Toal
[This piece was selected by Jacky Taylor. Read Jim’s interview]