“Grandad’s Shed” by Mike Finn

Grandad's Shed

“Cheer up, luv. It may never happen.” gran says, smiling into my serious, leave-me-to-wallow-in-existential-angst face.

I say nothing. I put a lot of effort into not smiling back.

She heaves herself out of her chair, dislodging the cat from her lap and says, “”Why don’t I make us all a nice cup of tea?”

I want to shout: Because tea fixes nothing. Because nothing can fix this. Because I’m sick of drowning anything important in a tsunami of tea so that we can all pretend everything is all right, but I don’t get the chance. Gran doesn’t wait for an answer, she heads off towards the kitchen without a backward glance.

The cat jumps up into gran’s chair, turns in a circle twice and settles down to glower at me. At least the cat lets me know what it’s thinking.

“She means well, lad,” my grandad says, “but your gran has always been afflicted with an optimistic view of life.”

Surprised, I look up at him. He’s not a man who says much. He doesn’t miss much either. His silence is a choice, not an absence of things to say.

“I was an optimist once,” he says with a tone of regret in his voice , “but I always knew it wouldn’t last.”

He keeps a perfectly straight face. I start to lose my grip on my angst and slide towards a smile but I stop myself at the last moment.

“So,” he says, “are you going to tell me who pissed on your chips or are you going to leave me guessing at why you’ve got a face like a wet week?”

“It’s dad. He’s ruined my life.” The words are so pathetic and my tone of voice is so melodramatic, that I’ve rejected them even before grandad raises an eyebrow at me.

“I know. I know. It can’t be that bad, right? Except it is. It really really is,” I say in a more controlled tone of voice.

“So what has your dad done now? Been caught committing a major crime? Admitted that he’s gay and wants to go live with his new boyfriend? Posted a video of himself dancing on YouTube?”

Any other time, I would have laughed. My dad would be horrified at any of those suggestions. When I don’t laugh, granddad looks at me steadily and says, “Out with it.”

“He’s accepted a promotion.”

Grandad says nothing.

“He’s going to head up a research team.”

Grandad says nothing a little more loudly.

“He’s going to be based in Basel, in Switzerland.”

“I know where Basel is, lad,” grandad says.

“Well I had to look it up.”

Grandad laughs and says, “So, your father, ruthless, selfish man that he is, intends to sweep up his wife and son and daughter and force them to live in one of the most affluent countries in Europe? He probably even has plans for you to finish your education in one of those International Schools, populated by the offspring of the rich and globally mobile, that makes you go skiing on Wednesday afternoons and teaches you to be fluent in three languages.”

This almost winkles me out of my shell of indignation until I realize that the part about the schools is a little too accurate for grandad to have made it up.

“He told you already, didn’t he?” I say, my voice full of the accusation of betrayal.

Grandad stands up.

“Get your coat lad, we’re going for a walk,” he says, then raises his voice and adds, “Mary, hold the tea until we get back. The lad needs some air.”

I look up at him, surprised. “You know it’s raining out there?” I say.

“Don’t be so nesh. A little rain won’t harm you.”

It isn’t a little rain. It’s a lot of rain, blowing straight into my face.  Grandad raises his collar, hunches his shoulders, puts his hands in his pockets and sets off at a brisk pace. I want to ask him where we’re going and whether it’s worth getting wet for but he’s already ahead of me, so I hurry to catch up.

My coat keeps me dry from my shoulders to my knees. I have no hat and I won’t use the hood rolled into my coat collar because it makes me look like a spaz, so my hair is getting drenched and rainwater is starting to find its way down my neck.

And here was me, thinking I couldn’t get any more miserable. Cold and wet and involuntarily mobile, sucked even more than existential angst.

Which, I realise, is why we were walking in the rain. The canny old bugger was teaching me a lesson.

Ok. Lesson learned. Maybe, if I tell him that I get the point, he’ll let me go back and get dry and be truly appreciative when Gran makes tea.

Then grandad says, “We’re here.”

Well, of course “we’re here”. That’s true by definition. Where else could we be? Shouldn’t that be “we’re there”? Except we can’t be there because we’re here. It comes to me then that I’m standing in the rain, caught in a semantic eddy, rather than following my grandad to wherever he’s taking me. Getting snagged up in my head like this is one of the reasons I have so few friends.

Grandad is pushing open the door to a small, shabby, Victorian pub. The wooden door is a dull black with a faded white trim, a tarnished brass handle and a frosted glass pane with “The Grapes”  etched across it. Heat and noise rush out at me, together with the smell of spilt beer, drying coats and tobacco smoke. Not that anyone’s allowed to smoke in a pub anymore. The tobacco smell is a legacy of generations of men taking a bet on whether the ale or the ciggies will kill them first.

I pause on the threshold. I’m sixteen years old. I’m allowed in pubs, when I’m accompanied by an adult. Even my dad takes me to pubs. Except those are Gastro Pubs, where middle-class people pay over the odds for posh food and authentic working class ales, in the renovated hulk of what used to be a drinking den for dockers. Dad will even buy me a glass of  Chardonnay to go with my beer-battered Haddock, mushy peas and hand-cut, double-cooked chips. The Grapes is not that sort of pub.

Grandad gives me a grin that seems to say, “Lost the sense to come in out of the rain, have you?”

I step inside. The door swings closed behind me. I feel like I’ve just leveled up in a new video game: pleased but tense and worried about making a fool of myself.

I follow in grandad’s wake as he moves through the not-enough-room-to-fall-over crowd to get to the bar. Every inch of the bar has someone leaning on it but one of the men nods at Grandad, moves over and then goes back to nursing his pint.

“Is this your Local, grandad?”, I ask, feeling stupid as soon as the words leave my mouth.

“This is my garden shed,” grandad says. “Or it would be, if I had a garden.”

I must have a WTF speech bubble over my head because he smiles and says, “It’s where I come when I need to live a less civilized life than is appropriate when in the company of my wife. But don’t mention it to her.”

“Gran doesn’t know you come here?”

“Of course she knows. And she knows I know she knows. So neither of us ever mentions it. Marriage is like that. At least, mine is.”

Gran and grandad have been married forever. I always think of them as a couple. It is a little shocking to think of them doing things apart. I wonder if gran has a garden shed and where it is and what she does when she goes there.

“The usual, Jim?”, a woman’s voice, educated, bordering on posh, asks.

The speaker is my mother’s age but she looks nothing like my mother. She is an old-style, Sex Pistols era, Punk with spiky purple hair and thick rings in her left eyebrow, right nostril and lower lip. She’s wearing a black polo shirt, with “The Grapes” embroidered across one of her large breasts. The shirt is unbuttoned all the way down. I can see part of a brightly coloured tattoo of what looks like tentacles, sliding down the curve of her breast and continuing beneath the shirt. I’m sure it’s meant to be sexy but I find it disturbing and not in a good way.

“Yes, please, Siouxsie,” grandad says.

“And what does the boy want,” she says, looking at me “other than an eyeful?”

I realise I’ve been staring and she thinks I’ve been ogling her breasts.

“I wasn’t… I mean I was… but the tattoo…”

“You want to see the rest of it?”

“No! I mean it’s nice but…”

“Don’t tease the boy, Siouxsie. His world has come to an end. He’s been betrayed by his father and he has no future. Get him a pint of Guinness. It’s what he needs.”

“How old are you?” Siouxsie asks me.

“Sixteen”.

“He can only have a drink with a meal, Jim. Do you really want to inflict our food on him?”

“You could give him a packet of peanuts.”

“That’s not a meal.”

“Two packets of peanuts?”

Siouxsie stares at him. He grins at her.

“I’ll bring you a sandwich,” she says to me, “But don’t eat it. It’s two days old and it was barely edible on day one.”

“Thanks, Siouxsie,” grandad says.

Siouxsie walks to the other end of the bar, her hips swaying in a pair jeans that are frayed just where her legs meet her arse and which take my breath away.

“She’s too old for you and too young for me, and too smart to be interested in either of us,” grandad says.

I stare at grandad, shocked by his comment. Before I can say anything, Siouxsie has pushed a plate with a sandwich on it towards me. It’s still wrapped in the kind of stretched plastic that’s banned in my house because my father says. ‘the dopants in the polymer are unregulated and may migrate to the foodstuff over time.’ My father is not a fan of the unregulated when it comes to anything that we subject our bodies to. Actually, he’s not even a fan of the unplanned. He prefers an ordered universe. Which is part of what makes the chaos he’s causing in my life so unforgivable.

“That’s one of the reason’s I come here”, grandad says.

I look up and he nods towards Siouxsie, who is pulling our pints of Guinness.

Her hand grips the large spar-shaped lever. Her eyes are fixed on the slightly tipped pint-glass, held just below the nozzle the Guinness issues from. She is exerting a steady pressure on the lever, controlling the flow. The action tenses the muscles on her forearm and makes her right breast tighten and rise, pulling her polo shirt taut. My mouth goes dry and my blood rushes away from my brain to a much more primitive and self-confident part of my body. I turn a little away from grandad, trying to hide my reaction.

Then grandad’s words penetrate my fogged mind. He comes here to watch Souixies’ breasts?

I want to turn and give him a questioning look but Siouxsie is pouring the second pint and I can’t look away.

“This is one of the last pubs that still has manual pumps,” grandad explains. “Guinness, deserves to be coaxed into the glass with a firm, loving hand, not pushed out into the world by uncaring compressed gas.”

Any doubt I have about whether grandad is aware of the sexual symbolism of his words, is dispelled by Siouxsie’s smile.

“Your grandfather is a romantic,” Siouxsie says, “with no appreciation of modern flow control.”

She picks up a pint in each hand, holding them firmly by the base and sets them in front of us.

“Of course,” she says, “He also enjoys watching me work.”

She moves away to deal with customers on the other side of the bar. Grandad and I both stay silent and watch her go. I look down at the Guinness, still roiling inside the glass, struggling to separate out into their final black and cream form and brace myself to ask grandad what exactly he gets up to in his Shed

“Grandad…”, I begin.

“I’m going to be the one asking the questions,” grandad says, lifting his now settled pint and admiring it’s new colours. “Now drink. Slowly”.

I’ve never had Guinness before. The texture of it catches me by surprise. The creamy head makes the drink slip so easily from the glass, that I am unprepared for the solid impact of the slightly heavy, dark liquid. I hold the drink up to the light, as my grandfather had, The soft creamy head still rests above the undisturbed depths of this calmly muscular drink. It is quietly magnificent.

I’m about to say so, hoping to sound mature and discerning, when grandad says, “So what’s she like, this girl that you don’t want to leave behind?”

How does he do that? Even my parents don’t know about Daisy.

“What makes you think that there’s a girl?”

He sups his Guinness before he answers, leaving a trace of cream on his upper lip.

“There’s always a girl,” he says, keeping eye-contact with me as he licks his lip clean, “Unless there’s a boy.”

I refuse to rise to the bait. Keeping my voice calm I say, “I am not gay.”

“No. You’re completely miserable. Besides, your reaction to Siouxsie made your orientation plain for all to see.”

Knowing I’d been seen made me feel a little weird but also a little less tense. We are in Grandad’s Shed where men come to live a less civilized life. If I can’t speak here, then I am dooming myself to silence.

“Her name is Daisy,” I say, looking down into my now half-empty pint-glass.

Grandad, laughs. “Really? How does she feel about that?”

Defensive anger sparks inside me until I look up and see that his question is genuine. Then I think of the times that Daisy and I have spoken about this and I smile.

“She used to hate it. At school they called her weedy or made mooing sounds at her. You know, Daisy the cow?”

Grandad frowns and puts down his drink.

“I see the cow thing but daisies aren’t weeds, even when they grow in places where people don’t want them to be. Still, senseless cruelty is one of the things I expect of children. Teaching them to abandon it is what adults are for.”

That was a long speech for grandad. He was a different man in this place and I didn’t know how to respond.

He picked up his glass again but before he drank from it, a thought seemed to strike him and he asked me a question.

“You said ‘used to hate it’. Doesn’t she hate is now?”

I grin at him. I hope he’ll like this part.

“Not since I told her what it means. I looked it up. It comes from the Old English daeges eage, day’s eye, because the flower opens its eye to greet the dawn and closes it again when the sun sets.”

Grandad looks surprised but approving.

“You told her that, did you? Was that before or after the first kiss?

Never mind. Stupid question and none of my business.”

He paused and added, “So, what is your day’s eye like?”

“She’s smart and strong and full of life. She makes me want things.”

Grandad grins and I blush.

“No, not those kind of things.”

Grandad raises an eyebrow.

“Well, yes,  those kinds of things,” I say, struggling to find the words that I really mean, “but more than that, she makes me want to be…” my words dry up, failing me again.

“…worthy of her,” grandad finishes, finding my words for me.

“Yes. Exactly. She doesn’t see me the way everyone else does. She sees me as I am and she still wants to be with me and I see her and how wonderful she is and I think how can that be? What did I do to deserve this?”

This is the first time I’ve spoken of Daisy to anybody and the anxiety in my voice surprises me until I realise that, that anxiety is the real reason that I came to see grandad today.

“It’s not what you did, lad,” grandad says, “it’s who you are. And who she is. Your Day’s Eye knows how to see.”

I absorb this, wondering how grandad can be so right about someone he’s never met. Then I think about Gran and how clearly she sees the man in front of me and I start to understand.

“What do your parents think about Daisy?”

“They don’t know about her.” I reply, a little too quickly.

I look down.

“I’m not sure that they’d approve. Mum knows Daisy’s parents from school. She calls them ‘neo-hippies, too out of touch with reality to make a contribution to society’. If I brought Daisy home, mum would wonder aloud whether Daisy is too much of a ‘free spirit’ for a boy like me. She’d even use air quotes around free spirit to make sure Daisy and I knew what she meant. And Dad… Dad would just be uncomfortable.”

I expect grandad to reprove me for speaking so harshly about my parents but he surprises me by saying, “So you’ve kept Daisy a secret but you’re still angry at your father for taking you away from her?”

“I’m angry because I’ve been given no choice,” I say.

Grandad looks at me over the rim of his Guinness glass.

“And I’m angry because keeping Daisy secret means I can’t complain about the real reason I don’t want to leave.”

“Has Daisy kept you a secret from her parents?”

“No. I’m often around there. It’s one of the things that keeps me sane. Her parents are relaxed. They don’t pressure Daisy and me. They’re…”

“Free spirits. Yes. I hope these free spirits spoke to both of you about contraception before they set you free in their house.”

Grandad’s voice is serious but not judgemental. He is concerned, not censorious.

“Actually, it was Daisy who talked to me about that.” I say, head down.

Grandad laughs.

“I mean,” I say, raising my head, “I knew all about it. At least in theory. But I hadn’t thought about what it meant for us.”

“What did Daisy think it meant for you?” grandad asks, quietly but with genuine curiosity.

“She said that it wasn’t about being careful in some guilty, negative way, It was about taking care of each other.”

Grandad grunts, sounding surprised.

“Is Daisy older than you?”

“No. At least not in terms of years. We’re almost exactly the same age. But sometimes I look at her and I wonder if I will ever be as grown up as she is. Then she’ll throw something at me and I’ll forget all about it.”

Grandad orders two more pints of Guinness. Siouxsie tells him I can only have a half. This time we’re both too involved in talking about Daisy to watch Siouxsie work.

“What did, Daisy say when you told her you were leaving for a while?” grandad asks.

My half-pint of Guinness arrives. I cradle it, already ashamed of what I’m going to say next.

“I didn’t tell her.”

Grandad says nothing.

“I can’t tell her.”

Grandad gives me a hard stare.

“Once I tell her, it will all be over. So I’m…”

…hiding things from her.” grandad says, disappointment in his voice. “Walking around all grief stricken. Pretending to be happy when you’re with her but not doing it well enough to fool her. How long do you think she’s going to put up with you behaving like that?”

I know he’s right but that doesn’t stop me from bleating out, “I can’t tell her. I’ll lose her as soon as I do.”

Grandad sets down his glass, looks at me and says, “So you don’t love her then?”

Unbelievable. How can he say that?

“Of course I love her,” I say, loud enough to be heard above the bar babble.

Letting my voice drop again, I add, “That’s why I’m so miserable.”

I thought that might get me sympathy and a few wise words. Instead I get one word, delivered with impatience that borders on contempt.

“Bollocks.”

Grandad seems to see the anger rising in me and makes an effort to sound reasonable, saying, “Love doesn’t make you miserable. Being selfish and lying to yourself about it makes you miserable.

You’re putting off telling her so that you won’t be hurt and in the meantime she knows you’re hiding something and behaving oddly and she’ll be wondering what’s going on and whether or not it’s her fault.

If you love her, tell her.”

This hurts too much for me to listen to, so I defend myself with bitter sarcasm.

“Great advice, grandad. ‘If you love her, let her go.’ You should write a song.”

I hastily finish my Guinness and almost immediately wish that I hadn’t.

Grandad ignores my sarcasm and give me a straight answer. He’s always given me straight answers.

“Daisy’s not a bird in a cage. She’s a person. According to you, she’s a strong person, so she’ll go where she pleases.

If you love her, you tell her the truth and decide together what it means.

Tell her tonight. Talk it through. Then bring her to ours for dinner tomorrow.”

This last line is so unexpected, it silences me.

“Now, drink up,” grandad says. emptying his pint, ignoring the fact that I’ve already gulped down mine.

“Your gran will have started dinner by now. Something with lots of carbs to help absorb the alcohol, given that she’ll know where I’m likely to have taken you. You’ll want a clear head when you go round to Daisy’s tonight.”

With a waive to Siouxsie, grandad guides me through the crowed bar and out into the street. The rain has stopped but the air is cold. It hits me at the same time as the Guinness and I lose, or perhaps just change, focus.

My thoughts, like my steps, weave just a little, with images moving unbidden across my mind: the steel in grandad’s eyes when he’d called me selfish, the curve of Siouxsie’s tattoo, the light failing to penetrate the calm depths of the Guinness.

I feel my Grandad’s hand on my elbow, steadying me a little and I force myself to focus, not on the way home, Grandad will take care of that, but on something much more important, an image I have returned to again and again: dawn’s gentle light limning the strong bones of the face I have been watching in the darkness, a change in her breathing, small, almost invisible alterations in the tension of her skin as her mind surfaces from sleep, and then, slowly, her eyes opening in response to the light’s caress. Suddenly she is there, totally present, totally Daisy and my breath catches.

She stretches with teasing langour, knowing the effect it will have on me. and turns her head to look at me.

“How long have you been watching me?” she asks.

Mostly, my words fail me, tripping over themselves like too-long limbs, but this time, as they shape in my mind, I know that they are right because they are the simple truth.

“Not long enough,” I say. “Never long enough.”

Grandad is right of course. I need to talk to Daisy. I’ll always need to talk to Daisy.

We’re back at the house. I can smell the rich earthy warmth of gran’s Lasagne and hunger flickers in my belly.

“Did you boy’s have a good walk in the rain?”, gran asks and I am suddenly certain that she’s knows all about Grandad’s Shed.

“We did.” grandad says.

“And is the world still ending?”

Dear God, even gran can see inside my head.

“Not today.” grandad says. “We’ll be having a guest for dinner tomorrow.”

Gran doesn’t treat this as the non sequitur it appears to be. Instead she gives me a broad smile and says to grandad, “What’s her name?”

“Daisy.”

“Really? Poor girl. What where her parents thinking?”

Gran takes in my frown and adds,”I wonder if it would help her to know that the daisy is given as a sign of true love because it’s really two flowers in one?”

I stop frowning and file that information away for possible use tonight. Then I feel shallow and sneaky. Tonight I need to talk with Daisy, not play word games.

“Is Daisy a vegetarian, dear?” gran asks me. “So many young people are these days.”

“No, gran. Daisy doesn’t mind people being vegetarian if that’s where their appetites take them but she says she was born hungry for everything. She’ll eat anything you put in front of her and say thank you afterwards.”

Both gran and grandad are looking at me now, with identical smiles on their faces.

There is a moment’s silence, the gran says, “You’re a lucky boy. I hope you know that.”

“I do,” I say, realising for the first time how true it is, and I follow my grandparents to the table.

 

 

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