Life on the Suburban Fringe by S.R.Noss
Feature image courtesy of Bethany Bailey (Dandelion Soup) on Flickr – here is the link for more of her work
Grandad and Al
Wednesday November 1st 1989
It all began late on a Wednesday morning two months ago. As per usual I was in the kitchen preparing lunch.
The ‘zzzwwwrrr’ of the blender stopped.
‘Marty? You deaf or something? Get door for Christ sake!’
There was indeed a continual rat-a-tatting of knuckle on wood so I wiped my hands on an old tea towel and went to see who it was.
‘It’s ok Grandad, keep your hair on. I’m getting it.’ I called out as I walked down the hallway to the front door, grumbling under my breath at another interruption.
‘Bout bloody time’ came the reply from the front room, ‘people die waiting for you!’
With no windows the hall was as gloomy as a priest’s confessional. The decor had become disgraced with age but the absence of light served to hide the fact. The linoleum had faded a mottled brown and crack-crunched underfoot whilst the two decade old lime green and orange floral print wallpaper had certainly seen better days. Grandad’s picture of the Titanic leaving Southampton docks sat crookedly on the wall, so I stopped to right it before opening the front door.
Autumnal light flooded the dark interior whilst a gentle breeze juggled fallen leaves and last night’s debris in lazy circles around the porch and into the house, much to my annoyance. On the front steps a tableau of hollowed pumpkin heads stared malevolently up at me. But of people there weren’t any.
‘Little fuckers,’ I swore under my breath whilst stepping out onto the path and standing, hands on hips Don Johnson style, scanning the street for signs of partially hidden giggling little shits. The coast was clear. I traipsed back into the house, shoulders hunched with frustration, at yet another suburban knock and run.
‘Another false alarm Grandad, those damn kids are really starting to …’
My voice trailed off mid sentence for there in the lounge sat Grandad rap-a-tapping his walking stick against the fireplace whilst a gap toothed Al grinned back at me. Eyes rolled and I wondered when Al had decided to make an appearance. Clearly the old boy was more mobile than he let on and yet again I was the ill-humoured subject of more misbegotten mischief.
‘You sodding old git,’ I muttered as laughs came back at me. It was like dealing with a geriatric juvenile day in, day out. I bloody well hated it. But the game for today was not finished there; the door knocking was after all only stage one of our ribald range of comical ritual. Then we entered the truly trying and testing name game, which could frankly go on and on for far too long.
‘Hey don’t be sore Mickey’ Grandad chuckled.
‘My names not Mickey is it,’ I said through gritted teeth
‘No Artur,’ Al scolded ‘his name not Mickey, its Malky, you old buffoon!’
I shook my head to tell them they were incorrect.
‘Mousey?’ they joked enquiring together, not that it was at all funny.
‘Freezing,’ eyes rose in jest.
‘Michael?’ serious faces.
‘Mitchell?’ Al enquired.
‘No where near’
‘Marshall?’ they pondered.
‘Mick, Rick, Dick or Jack?’ they floundered,
‘Even colder,’ I murmured, shaking my head.
Then eventually, with much pondering, muttering and thought they cried aloud ‘Marty’ in unison. Thank fuck for that I thought to myself. I could smell burning coming from the kitchen and knew lunch was definitely spoiled.
The afternoon passed relatively uneventfully. Mr Harrison, our next door neighbour, embarked on one of his regular DIY adventures and the sounds of muted hammering, sawing and occasional expletives could be heard through the walls as the day drifted on. Al stayed for most of it and so conversation with Grandad tended to drift off on unexpected tangents or just prove impossible. When Al was around even the simplest question could become too torturous to get an answer to. It wasn’t worth the hassle so, beyond faithfully delivering the odd cup of tea, I spent the rest of the day avoiding the lounge as best I could.
By dinnertime Al seemed to have made his way back to wherever it is he came from whilst Mr Harrison had stopped his DIY and left with Mrs Harrison in tow, he nursing a swollen hand, she to drive their car to A&E, I presumed. Grandad was tucked up in front of the TV for an evening of ‘Allo ‘Allo, Treasure Hunt and Dallas, quietly watching, eyes glazed and I wondered, not for the first time, what went on in that head of his.
Eventually the TV moved on to the Russ Abbott Show and Grandad awakened from his reverie. He grumbled a bit and the worn leather of his chair gruffled back as he shifted his weight around. I looked up from the book I was reading; George Orwell’s 1984, which is number 12 on my list of things I should really have read.
‘Time for quick night cap?’ he asked.
The question lingered in the air. He shouldn’t drink with the meds he’s prescribed, but sometimes I just can’t say no. He’s an old man after all and what harms a few drams really going to have in the bigger scheme of things? I looked over at the old ships clock on the mantelpiece and was about to grunt my agreement when another series of knocks thumped out.
‘Golanski?’ a voice asked as I opened the front door. Beyond it stood a man in UPS brown.
‘Got a package for you.’ A small box and clipboard were thrust in front of me. ‘Sign here,’ he said and I did as asked even though I wasn’t expecting any sort of delivery. The country of origin printed on the manifest stated USA but the box itself was plain, hand wrapped and minus any company logo.
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘Damned if I know,’ he answered, shrugging his shoulders and taking the clipboard back in one fluid motion. ‘I just deliver them.’
Once back in the lounge I asked Grandad if he was expecting a delivery but he just shook his head and asked if his nightcap was ready yet. It was after all fast approaching his bedtime, so I went in the kitchen to make his drink and find a pair of scissors with which to open the package. Inside the box was filled with package confetti and I had to rummage around to find the four 3.5” floppy computer disks nestled at the bottom. Nothing was written on them. I again checked the delivery manifest and address label on the box; both were in our name and had our address on them but no sender’s details. It was a bit odd but I shrugged it off; someone somewhere had obviously got the order wrong but without any information about who to return it to there was little I could do but wait until the morning and call the courier firm to see if they knew what to do.
I thought little more of it until much later that evening. Right there and then it was more important to get Grandad in bed. An hour and one frothy hot chocolate later he was washed, teeth scrubbed, pyjamas on and tucked up in his bed. From the bathroom I could hear the first gentle snores of sleep washing over him. I splashed cold water across my face. Little droplets rolled down my skin as I gazed into the wash basin mirror. Tired eyes set against turquoise tiles gazed back.
I finished washing then went back in to check on Grandad. He was dead as a log; dead asleep that was. A sliding scale of snores drifted around the room and all snuggled in his eiderdown he looked like a big pink snuggled baby. I stood and watched him breathing for a while, contemplating how the roles had become well and truly reversed. I was now the adult and he the child.
Content that he was sleeping peacefully I wandered off downstairs, knowing that what little of the night was left is my own. I went into the kitchen and switched on the radio to catch the last half hour of the John Peel show whilst doing the washing up. Huey Lewis and the News followed the Buzzcocks and Elvis Costello’s ‘Oliver’s Army’. The package on the worktop kept catching my eye even though I tried to ignore it so, once my fingers had shrivelled fifty years from being immersed in water, I clicked the radio off, grabbed a beer from the fridge and wandered into the dining room with the computer disks to take a sneak peek at what they contained. I switched on my Commodore Amiga and slipped the first disk into the drive. A ‘loading’ message came up with a status bar underneath that crept infinitesimally upwards.
Eventually the screen flashed ready and the title ‘Loki’s Revenge!’ came up in bold red letters. I clicked ‘start new game’ and a low quality 3-D map of the world materialised. The graphics were clunky and simplistic, in keeping with some sort of strategy game. You had the option to play as America, Russia, China or Europe. I chose Russia and a new screen opened asking me what my first policy decision would be as General Secretary of the Communist Party. A series of options were offered and I chose ‘policy of expansion’. The screen cut to a shot of T34 tanks rolling through a generic war torn city. Then I shot dissidents on the central committee who opposed me and conducted secret negotiations with the Iranians about nuclear developments.
Two hours later my eyes were red raw and I was well and truly hooked.
Bbbbbrrrrrrrrr. It was ball-bracingly cold out. Being on the side of a hill meant the garden was windswept throughout autumn and winter. Drifts of leaves lay rotting against the walls of the house and I thought to myself that I should really be better about sweeping them up. But then that was a never ending battle with the number of trees that overhung the property. Lazy tendrils of smoke drifted upwards as I took a quick swig of beer and then a long drag on my cigarette. Must stop soon, I told myself. The lights of the city across the river twinkled at me; blues and greens, yellows and reds, flicker-fluttering across the water.
Mildly chilled my thoughts turned to the game I had just spent the evening playing. It was addictive. Whoever had paid for and ordered the game was missing out on a treat, albeit a tough and frustrating one. Despite its simple, almost amateurish look and feel, it was an extremely difficult and challenging game. No matter what I tried to do the game seemed to respond accordingly and frustrate my attempts for world domination. When I tried to expand it responded and countered me. When I tried to consolidate it attacked and gave me no time to think. It was almost as if I was trying to play chess against a grandmaster always one move ahead of me. I knew was going to have to try and beat it.
The late night-time resonance of suburbia carried on around me as I became lost in my thoughts; a couple were fighting at number twenty-seven, their voices rising and acrimonious. From another house soft, throbbing music drifted out. The Morgan family at number thirty had forgotten to let the dog back in again and it sat in the garden whining to get their attention. Else where a car door slammed and an engine revved up and I wondered if the argument at twenty-seven had become too much for one of them to bear.
Adrift amidst the sounds of people living it was easy for loneliness to bubble upwards in spring of discontent. I worried me that I’d end up as some old bachelor living alone with cats in a house smelling faintly of piss, the type who spent his days shuffling to and from the shops to buy meals for one and yell at the local football kicking kids. After all, who would want a boyfriend that lived with his Grandad, didn’t have a proper job and had no future to speak of?
Not that my life had always been that way. Until five years before my life had been very normal. I’d done well despite the local comprehensive and my path seemed mapped out before me. I went off to University and, for a few blissful months, I was truly, unbelievably happy.
Then it all changed one calm April evening. It was an unusually warm day for that time of year and for a few hours we were able to forget the impending fear of the end of year exams. Life seemed to teem everywhere and amidst the hustle and bustle I was sat out on the grass with friends, cheap cold wine and watching the world wander by. I was happy and it felt great to be alive. Later on a crowd of us proceeded to crawl our way around a succession of pubs, with the sole aim of getting resoundingly drunk; the perfect end to a perfect day when your nineteen and living away from home for the first time.
It was of course a triumphant success and in the wee small hours, having had a chat with huey down the big white telephone, I lay in bed, not alone, the room gently spinning around me, with the warmth of another’s body beside me. I remember smiling into the darkness and deciding I was as content with the world as I could ever be.
Then the communal telephone started ringing in the wee hours of the morning. Its ring echoed endlessly around the stairwell and all about us could be heard the sounds of people stirring from their sleep and shouting numerous expletives about turning the fucking thing off. Whoever was calling was certainly insistent. The ringing continued, demanding an response. Eventually one brave soul decided they’d had enough and stumbled out to answer it. I could hear the padding of footsteps coming down the concrete hallway and a voice softly cursing the cold. They stopped outside my room and pounded at the door.
‘Marty, you in there?’ came the shout. The mound of blankets next to me grumbled and rolled over in the bed. I looked at them for a moment, then slipped out and padded over to the door. I opened it to find my friend Peter stood there, bleary eyed and very annoyed. He looked at me and swore.
‘For fucks sake Marty, you could have put some bloody clothes on!’
I stood there stark bullock naked. He waited whilst I threw on a dressing gown.
‘There’s a phone call for you and you’d better go fucking answer it. They’re bloody insistent that I come wake you up.’
Yawning and groggy with sleep I shuffled down three flights of stairs to my waiting call.
‘Marty, that you?’ a faint voice whispered. I recognised it immediately.
‘Yes…Grandad… is that you?’
‘Yes.’ There was silence for a minute. ‘How long you had special friend?’
I was slightly taken a back. Peter had obviously said something, most likely to avoid having to come and wake me up.
‘Is that what you’ve called me about Grandad?’
‘No, no. It good Marty. Friend is good.’ Even though his voice was faint I could detect a slurring of his words. ‘Man should not be alone.’
‘Are you drunk Grandad?’ I asked. He went silent again for a while.
‘Yah, Marty…yah.’ I realised that I had to take control of the conversation.
‘Why are you drunk Grandad. Why have you called me?
‘Bad news Marty….life no good right now.’
‘What do you mean no good Grandad?’ I asked, perplexed at how this was all going. At the other end of the phone I could hear muffled sobs of crying. I’d never heard my Grandfather cry before. He was a pretty tough and emotionless man all in all. The pit of my stomach knotted and tightened. Something was seriously wrong. So I asked him again.
‘What do you mean no good Grandad?’
It took a moment for him to compose a reply.
‘The doctors…your grandma….they says she sick, proper sick…they says she won’t get better…not now…not ever…’
The sobs grew louder. It was the moment I knew my life had changed forever. Within the week I was packed and home. Life no longer my own.
A meowing face peered up at me and Mrs Wigwam III jumped into my lap. She purred and kneaded my thighs with her claws, digging deep in anticipation of affection. A warm fuzzy glow of painful contentment enveloped me but in the distance the telephone began ringing and it was a few moments before I realised it was ours.
In my haste to get inside and answer it I sent Mrs Wigwam III sprawling with a startled meow and a swipe of her claws. She caught my hand and drew a deep red welt across it. I didn’t notice though because I was in a hurry to answer the phone before it woke Grandad up.
“Hello?” I answered, wondering who would call so late. Silence came back down the line. It was an odd sort of silence though. Faintly, as if in the distance, I could hear a soft scrapping sound. Slowly it got louder and louder. I said hello again. A distant voice filled the void.
‘No he’s asleep, who is this?’ I asked.
‘Artur?’ the voice asked once again.
‘Artur’s asleep; this is Marty, his grandson. Can I help at all?’
Once again silence came back at me. Eventually the voice spoke again. It seemed to be making a real effort to get the words out.
‘Artur, Wir setzen unser vertrauen nicht mehr auf Gott, ya?’
Before I could answer the line went dead. I put the phone back into its cradle and stood there for a while, rubbing the red welt on my hand, wondering quite what the hell that was all about.