I’m Glad I Listened
Grandad often bought himself a couple of beers on pension day. Us kids would linger at the corner of the street and watch to see him coming down the big hill of the main street. We recognized him even from a distance. He was the man who stepped off the pavement for the ladies, doffing his flat cap as he did so. As he got closer we could hear him humming. He held onto the lapels of his jacket with his left hand and his right arm swung smartly at his side. Often we saw a flash of green in this left hand and we knew then to go and get Granny. She loved to meet him at the door when he was in this playful mood.
His voice got louder as he stepped onto our section of the street. The male neighbors would come out and sit on the windowsills to watch, or lean over their half doors with a cigarette in their mouths. Some of the ladies would pretend to be industriously polishing their steps. They marked out their semi-circle in Cardinal Red polish and filled in the arc. Periodically they would lift their heads to see Granddad’s progress. Granny meanwhile stood at the door with her bouncing grandkids laughing all around her.
“Where is he now?” she would ask.
“Ach, Granny, sure he’s stopped at the Mc Cooksey’s,” someone would answer. She would harrumph, but look out the door anyway.
“Oh, he’s walking again. Now he’s going into the wee shop, Granny. Come on Grandad, hurry up1” We chided him from the doorstep. He knew exactly how to stretch our anticipation and it made us laugh all the more.
“Has he come out yet?” Granny would ask.
“No, not yet, oh, wait. There he is. He’s coming now. Oh…”
“Oh, what?” Granny asked each time.
“He’s bending down now to tie his shoe laces.”
“Silly old man”, she murmured her eyes twinkling behind her thick glasses. By this time we could quite clearly hear him singing.
“Ladee of Spain I hadore you!”
The people in the street nodded and smiled. Three doors away from us he stopped again and pretended to look for his keys, searching earnestly in each pocket. Then dramatically swinging his arm back he made as if to knock the door. This was our cue to run down and stop him.
“No, Grandad, stop, stop, that’s the wrong house!”
He always pretended to look totally amazed and bewildered that he could make such a mistake. We would fight for his free hand to grab and joyfully escorted him to our house. It was the very last house on the corner of the main street.
By this time the neighbors would be convened at Molly’s which was two doors away from the Dentist. There was much jostling, elbow nudging and laughing.
When we got to our door Grandad would stop theatrically, take off his cap and make a wide sweeping bow with it. Then in front of the whole street he knelt down thrusting out the leek. (Yes you heard right).
“Ladee of Spain I hadore you,” he sang boisterously until Granny stepped out, graciously retrieving the wavering stem and sniffing it she would delicately kiss him on the top of his bald pate. Grandad then stood up and swung our dumpy Granny around in a dizzying spin. The end was a ceremonious bow to the street amid loud cheering from the neighbors and with a tender hand on Granny’s waist he led her inside.
The times that he bought leeks instead of daffodils was when he was so full of the mischief that he had us kids running up and down the street looking for the missing yellow flowers…
The people in Smith’s Fruit and Veg Shop knew him well and often helped him choose the perfect flowers or leeks depending on what mood he was in. “I tell you kids I know I had daffodil heads on this stem, three pence to the kid that finds them.”
We knew rightly that they were leeks. They smelled just like onions and sure he hadn’t even brushed the dirt off the roots! But we kept out of the way for a wee while so they could have a romantic moment to themselves…
Once our grandparents went inside our neighbors crept back into their homes to their fires after the entertainment was over, shaking their heads with amusement, though they had seen it many times before.
When we eventually came back to the house Granny and Grandad would be sitting on the sofa holding hands. Grandad would beam at us and ask. “Did I tell you how I met your Granny?”
“No,” we chanted each time.
“Well, we were both in India at the time. I had joined the army to see the world. Ye see my Dad got killed in the street and I was going to be sent off to an orphanage along with my three brothers. You remember I told you my Mammy died giving birth to me youngest brother?”
Granny interrupted here,” Aye, and about the same time in England my Mammy got killed in the Linen Mill in Huddersfield so me and my two sisters were split up into orphanages. I already had bad eyesight and my glasses were really thick even then. I was told I hadn’t the looks to get a husband so they educated me to become a teacher. Well, we had visitors regularly who would come and adopt children. I kind of gave up being chosen as people wanted babies and small girls. I decided at eighteen that I would stay on at the orphanage and teach after all. One day an old lady walked into my classroom with one of those pince nez things in her hand and looked down her nose at me. Later I was told that she was looking for a companion to travel to India with and she wanted me and that’s how I got to go.”
“Aye,” Grandad picked up the story. “I lied about my age to get into the army and I was sent to India early on. I wasn’t as clever as your Granny,” he inclined his head towards her. “But I was real good with a gun. Part of my job there was animal control. I had to shoot mainly rabid monkeys.” He always rubbed his head at this point in anguish.
“Well, my Mrs. Cunningham was a holy terror, get this fetch that, find this, read to me.” Granny continued. “But God bless her she had to have a nap during the day and these naps took at least two hours. Lord, I loved that time. I ran down to the market and looked at the silk saris and smelled the spices. I had mint tea in the courtyard and read my books. But my most favorite thing was to sit on the hill overlooking Delhi and watch the colors, the people and the elephants.”
Grandad normally stepped back in here. “I had to keep detached from my work, but dammit, one little monkey just wouldn’t leave me alone. I would be eating a mango and throw away the peel away and it would pick it up and suck the juicy fruit off it. After a while it followed me. I woke up with it sleeping on my boots and soon it was on my shoulders as I got through my day working on the trucks and having tea with the locals. Some afternoons we would sit on top of that hill facing Delhi. I rolled my cigarettes and that monkey sat at my feet picking at fleas or whatever they pick at. He sighed, Lord I can still see it now…” his voice would break here.
“It got rabies, you know and it sat there with its little paws over its eyes when I lifted the gun to shoot it.” The silence crept in at this point of the story. Granny patted his hand and until he was ready to start back up again.
“It was that same afternoon that I went up to sit on the hill. I heard a man crying and there he was, your Grandad sitting on my hill with his head in his hands.”
“Aye,” he said softly.” I was so ashamed to be caught crying, but your Granny; she sat down, listened to my story and started crying herself. Well I couldn’t bear to see tears in her eyes, periwinkle blue they were. Before I knew it she was in my arms and we were hugging each other.”
“You know we met every day after that,” Granny said. “We even sneaked out at night and met up. You Grandad knew the best local places to eat. Oh, it was about one month later and we were on our hill looking at the moon….” They would look at each other here.
“Aye, that was the night I gave her this.” His knobby fingers reached out to touch her wrinkled left hand.
“I got it specially made for her out of a gold Rupee. There’s not another one like it in the world.” They both looked at her rose gold wedding ring.
“Mrs. Cunningham was not happy,” Granny continued. “She had chosen me because I was plain and took me to a foreign country where she thought she could control me and look, I fell in love with this big galoot.”
“Aye, and we came to Ireland and I filled your hands with jewels and riches beyond measure.”
Granny chuckled then and cupped his cheek. George Marsh, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.”
We squirmed at all this mushy stuff and Grandad took the hint and would get up and made a pot of tea. Soon he was snoring in his own chair by the window with the after effects of the Guinness. Granny sitting at the edge of the sofa lit up a cigarette and closed her hazy eyes against the smoke.
I can still see them like that, me Granny and Grandad. It was hard to imagine them as the people in the photo on top of the fireplace. Grandad stood smartly in his uniform with his pith helmet tucked under his arm. His moustache was waxed and upturned on his smiling face. Granny was beside him, a gloved hand on his arm. Slim in a dropped waist dress with long pearls, her wiry glasses atop a pert nose.
I looked at them as I saw how they were in our lives. Grandad’s teeth had slid to one side as he slept through his memories. Granny’s milky eyes replayed hers. Her puffy feet stretched out towards the heat of the fire and the splashes of dirt on her sweater that she couldn’t see were there. I’m so glad I listened, as I hope someone listens when it’s my turn.