It was a blisteringly hot July day and granddad had given his usual salute as Mum sped off with a parp of the horn. He was sitting in a deckchair on the crazy-paved drive blowing his orange tea. He loved that spot and rarely strayed far from the front porch and late afternoon shade of the conifers. He’d sit and pass the time of day with Gordon or Ron the Spark or shy Miss Edge who taught piano up at the school. ‘Putting the world to rights’ was what he called it.
I clambered onto the brick wall that surrounded the neatly trimmed lawn and borders. When I’d got my balance – arms out at my sides like an aeroplane – I tiptoed along the top as I always did, pretending I was a tightrope walker at the circus.
‘Watch it, Tin-ribs,’ granddad murmured. He had the Daily Mirror flat on his face, folded to the runners and riders, ready for his bookie’s pencil. His trousers were rolled back to the knee as if anticipating a paddle and he’d turned up the collar on his shirt, always complaining his neck got burnt otherwise. When I got to the end of the wall I dropped into a forward roll on the spongy, shaded bit of lawn to complete my circus routine. Granddad barely stirred beneath the 4.10 from Wolverhampton.
‘Watch your threads, you scamp,’ he said.
I got to my feet patting the dust from my trousers. Mum said I should have been wearing my shorts given the weather, but shorts meant bare skin and I hated being scalded by the leatherette seats in our Ford Escort and I hated the horrible sticky sensation I got peeling my legs free when I got out. Granddad didn’t clap at my little gymnastic display so I sprinted between the conifers at the side of the house whooping and cheering and scattering the gravel like buckshot against the fence panels. I loved the scent of the conifers and the spiders’ webs that hung between them like angel fur on our Christmas tree. I heard granddad cuss and his deckchair springs squeal so I ducked through the last conifer and squeezed through a loose panel, wriggling between an abandoned roller and a set of ladders. Granddad was a sergeant for years and he liked order and insisted on neat paths. He grunted as he crouched beside the conifer, knees cracking. His hands raked through the gravel.
‘I’ll cut your lights out,’ he said.
I stood perfectly still, pressed hard against the push lawnmower and cobwebbed deckchairs, stifling a giggle. It was hot and airless in the shed which smelt of creosote and damp earth. A wet, black nose sniffed and a paw scratched at the bottom of the door. Taffy was granddad’s collie. He always betrayed me.
‘When I get you I’ll tan your hide.’
The creosote and gloss nipped at my eyes and nose.
‘I can hear you – you little tyke.’ The door creaked as it swung open. Granddad stood there tapping a broom stale in his palm. He stared at me, eyes like raisins and his brow furrowed like a walnut from the summer sun under a glistening, oiled fringe. I flinched as he prodded the broom stale past my shoulder. He tapped a bucket and it rocked forward on the shelf spilling a battered old Casey bouncing onto the floorboards. I caught it and cheered and ran onto the lawn. We used a watering can and a seat cover for goalposts. We weren’t supposed to play and I always got the blame, but granddad said there was no one about. He winked at me, making that clicking noise in his cheek.
‘They’ll be none the wiser, sunshine.’
He’d retired early from the Force with angina but he could never resist a kick-about in his slippers. I stood between the ‘posts’ while granddad lined up a free kick from the birdbath. It always started like that. He’d pass and I’d do the running so he only had to twist and turn a little, padding this way and that. He toe-poked a shot low and hard and I dived and scrambled to push the ball around the watering can. ‘Saved it,’ I said punching the air. Granddad frowned and drilled a shot beneath my sprawling body, clenching his fist.
‘Pick that one out the onion bag,’ he said. ‘I haven’t lost the old magic yet.’
The sun was beating down and there was barely a shadow on the parched turf. Granddad had a stripe of sweat running down his spine and he took out a hankie to mop his forehead.
‘Granddad, shall I get you a drink?’
He shook his head. ‘Still think you can beat me?’ He jinked this way and that. I grinned. I was fast but sometimes I trod on the ball and he’d laugh and say I’d make a better striker if I took the ball with me. I turned left then right and skipped past him and he cussed and poked out a foot catching me on the ankle. I yelped and went over, stumbling into the rose bushes. A thorn jagged my knee and I felt the warm trickle of blood but bit my cheek, determined not to cry in front of him. When I looked up his outline was stooped and black against the blazing sun. He was bent at the hip, wheezing. He closed his eyes and seemed to sway a little.
‘Granddad…’ I said. ‘What’s up?’
He took a gulp of air. ‘S’ alright kid. Just give us a tick, OK?’
His elbow turned out so I took it, holding his bony arm and steering him to his deckchair. I remembered when his arms were thick as tree trunks and he’d hold me and my sister at arm’s length like a circus strongman. Instead, he plodded along taking the steps of a deep sea diver, something cracking and whistling in his throat. When he sat down I let him be for a few minutes trying not to stare, trying not to panic. I remember Mum saying he was best left. Finally he slumped back in the deckchair and his shoulders dropped a little. ‘How’s your knee, kid?’ he said.
‘S’ fine,’ I said. I’d torn my trousers. I poked through the flap of fabric and picked at the grit and the shard of thorn that’d found its way beneath my skin.
‘We’ll get you cleaned up. You’ll live,’ granddad said and ruffled my fringe. He was still very pale and his fingers were trembling. ‘I don’t know what your mum’s going to say about your strides though, kid.’
I nodded. ‘I think she’ll be-’
‘What’ve you pair been playing at?’ Nan said. I hadn’t seen her walk up the street and didn’t answer. I was in bother, which meant there would be no dandelion and burdock, no American cream soda today. ‘Your mother will go spare,’ she said. ‘She’ll do her nut.’
‘It wasn’t his fault,’ granddad said.
Nan folded her arms. ‘And as for you…….’
‘That’s enough, love.’
‘You shouldn’t be playing football at your age, in your condition, you silly fool.’
She folded her arms but granddad waited her out. When she had calmed down a little Nan fetched squash and biscuits. There were custard creams and pink wafers on a doily. ‘You weren’t the only one,’ granddad said.
‘What’s that?’ I said.
‘History repeating itself,’ he said.
I must’ve looked puzzled because granddad said: ‘I did my knee too.’
For ripping his trousers Granddad said he’d got the belt. ‘My dad kept a belt. He hung it from a nail on the parlour door.’
The parlour door was always kept shut, a room for vicars and elderly aunts with a terrible silence that was only broken by the chimes of a carriage clock or the scratchy death throes of a sparrow in the chimney. Granddad hated that room. Unless it was ‘aired’ – and even then neither granddad nor his brothers or sisters was allowed in – the belt couldn’t be seen. But then the belt didn’t need to be seen. ‘We knew it was there alright,’ he said. ‘We didn’t need telling.’ Granddad and his brothers must have sensed that belt wherever they went in that two-up, two-down end terrace.
Later, much later, I learned granddad was a promising footballer when local men earned more in the pits or the pots. He was signed after trials by Stoke City, a nippy and elusive inside right nicknamed ‘Bandy’ by his mates for his unusual gait. He was the eldest of six growing up in the Depression, which meant he was up before five, pedalling through the frost and the rain, delivering bread on a baker’s bike. He’d shown promise at school too, but with no money in football and with mouths to feed he joined the London and North Western Railway as a guard.
He didn’t say much about work preferring, like most of his generation, to leave that behind when the whistle blew or the card was stamped. He must’ve stood on smoky platforms at Crewe and Lime Street dreaming of what might’ve been. Perhaps he’d dashed down the platforms imagining headed goals at Maine Road or jinking, mazy runs at Villa Park. He’d heard the roar of the Flying Scotsman but I’m sure he would’ve swapped it in a heartbeat for the roar of the Kop.
Tragic then that it was football that was granddad’s undoing. Sundays meant a scrub with carbolic and a service at St John’s. I don’t know how long my great grandparents scrimped and saved so their eldest could go to church in a suit, but when he was washed and dressed with his fringe slicked to his scalp with soapy water, granddad must’ve heard the clatter of a ball on corrugated iron or the rush of footsteps on the cobbles in the alley. He broke and ran to the Rec, dribbling and shooting and forgetting his pristine new suit. When he returned breathless and sweating and late for church his Sunday best was torn at the knee where he’d stumbled on the cobbles. It was a reckless tackle from Bert Drake, going in heavy with both feet, but there was no point blaming him.