My Grandpa, Roger Francis Slade, passed away this year, and this was written a few years ago. Today would be his 82nd birthday, so I wanted to remember him with a post in his honour, and although it’s hugely sentimental, I only hope it’s practise to become half the writer I found out – all too late – that he was.
My Grandpa, like most Grandpas, is old. He has always seemed old, but now, in my twenties, I see for the first time through eyes that have their own experience of ageing – if only because my glasses’ prescription has gotten worse with every visit to the opticians – that he really is old.
I think of the man on the beach building sixty-five sandcastles on his sixty-fifth birthday, skin bronzing in the bright sunlight; his skin is still brown, but tainted with bruises that don’t heal and blemishes that a tan can’t conceal. I think of the man walking barefoot in his garden in his seventies, tending to his award-winning roses ready for the summer show. He still entered the show last summer, but when they announced he’d won he couldn’t get to the stage without a walking stick and the hushed gasps of his grandchildren as one pigeon-toed foot clumsily scuffed the heel of the one in front. I think of the man only two Christmases ago, before his cancer was diagnosed, with his festive tiepin and party hat and potbelly full to the brim beneath a button-up shirt. He still had a party hat and tiepin last year, but his shirt seemed to billow over a frame that was barely there.
These memories may be rose-tinted – perhaps those glasses have been changing colour with every prescription, too – but they represent a time I very much want to revisit. On a recent visit to my grandparents’ house, from his seat on the couch in his corduroy slacks belted tight to keep them from falling down, my Grandpa tells me he has something to show me. My Mum and her mother, my Grandma, retreat to make tea, all raised eyebrows and rolled eyes, not ready for another look at the family tree or to relive what they’ve already seen. My Dad disappears behind a newspaper.
“Wait here,” he says, rising slowly from the sofa and shuffling towards the stairs. As has become instinct, I hover in the hallway and watch him ascend, only realising I’ve been holding my breath once I hear his heavy footfalls moving across the upstairs landing. He’s heading for the Stamp Room – or, the spare room – a cornucopia of collectables catalogued into leather-bound books the length of a bedroom that all three of his daughters once slept in and called ‘home’, but now it houses only his desk, the shelves and the stamps.
“More stamps?” my Mum calls from the kitchen. My Grandmother, still somewhat of a spring chicken, full of life and love even in old age, clucks around with teacups and the kettle in the background. But, now, I notice, she moves a little more clumsily, as though one thin, chicken-like leg has been ringed with a heavy reminder that its knee needs replacing.
I murmur something nondescript in response: there is an assumption that most things my Grandpa wants to show us are stamp-related. My Mum smiles dismissively, and I feel that hollow guilt that most grandchildren must feel when they feign interest in being shown the stamp collection or told another story they’ve heard time and time again. But, rather selfishly, while I might not find stamps or stories of Men in Sheds – the aptly-named weekly woodworking meet my Grandpa goes to – as interesting as he does, I still want to him to be there, always, to show me the stamps and tell me the stories that would otherwise be forgotten. Stories only survive if they’re told.
Once he has shuffled safely back to his seat with a small notebook in hand, I sit down and wait, as children do for a bedtime story, for him to begin. He adjusts his glasses and then slides his finger over the bald spot in his grey hair before saying, with a smile that deepens the sloping lines around his mouth,
“I’m writing a book.”
My Grandpa is a lot of things by profession – RAF airman, policeman, electrician – but ‘writer’ is not among them. Studious and driven, he changed his career continually throughout his life and worked at all levels, from lowly apprentice to self-employed entrepreneur with his own embossed stationary. Yet, he never forgot his roots: the writing on his headed-paper was always green in homage to his hometown football team, Plymouth Argyle. Still, professional papers, personal letters and signing on the dotted line were the closest I ever thought he came to writing.
‘What are you writing about?’
‘It’s my life story.’