The Fleeting Grandfather by Sheena Billett

Clare arrives at the wrong church for a funeral, and meets a new fate instead; by Sheena Billett.

My first thought is that I must have the time wrong when I arrive at the church and there is not a black-clad mourner in sight. Just to be sure, I try the door which is firmly locked. Surely a place like Surrington can't have more than one church. I check the details on my phone and look at the ivy clad information board leaning crazily against a tree trunk. St Matthews - not Holy Trinity! I scan the horizon for any other spires and towers but can see no evidence of another church. Trust Aunt Anna to make things difficult and have her funeral at the most out-of-the-way venue possible. 'I don't want to put you to any trouble. Something small will do me.' I sigh in frustration at my now-deceased aunt.

Having retreated to my car and Google maps, I locate the church on the other side of town. Engrossed in my phone I haven't noticed a man approach the car. I look up just as he is about to knock on the window. Probably some do-gooder wanting to give me directions. I wind down the window with a crisp 'Yes?'

'Could you help? My wife has had a fall and I can't get her up.'

I bite down the 'For God's sake!' hovering on my lips and get out of the car.

'She's over here.'

As we make our way through the graveyard long grass, I thank God for my knee-high boots. The man is surprisingly agile for someone who must be at least seventy and I am out of breath by the time we reach his wife.

I can see at once that she is dead, but just to be sure, I check for a pulse.

'I'm so sorry Mr... There is nothing we can do for your wife.'

'Dobbs... Gerald.'

'I think we should call an ambulance.'

'Yes... yes... whatever you think.' He waved the practicalities of the situation aside with an irritable wave of his hand.

I move away to give Mr Dobbs... and myself... some space.

Having made the call I hover, unsure what to do next. I look across at Gerald kneeling beside his dead wife.

I look at the time on my phone - I have missed the funeral now, anyway. I resort to further practicalities.

'Gerald, is there anything I can do? Anyone I can call for you?'

'No. But could you help me make Iris a bit more... comfortable?'

We lay her on her back and cover her with my long black coat.

'They shouldn't be too long.' I say, praying my desperation isn't too obvious.

I sit on a nearby tombstone wondering whether the damp moss will stain my trousers. Gerald sits beside Iris, holding her hand.

I listen to the birds and distant traffic on the main road - life continuing, regardless of death.

'Had you been married for a long time?' I imagine them meeting as childhood sweethearts and celebrating their golden wedding surrounded by numerous children and grandchildren.

'Only a year. We didn't have much time together.'

'I'm so sorry.' My training as a pharmacist has not equipped me with the skills for such a conversation and I'm not sure of the next step, so I choose to stay silent.

'We met online. I wanted to meet someone young at heart - someone who hadn't allowed old age to defeat them - so I thought anyone who was online would be a good start. We hit it off straight away...'

I allow the silence to continue.

'Neither of us had been married before - we had both been busy with our careers, and only had time for marriage when we got to our seventies.'

I'm tempted to say something inane like, 'Goodness!' but resist.

'What a year we've had together! We've travelled to India and the Arctic, we've hired a camper van and done a road trip around Scotland, we've eaten at the best restaurants and generally spent lots of money. Neither of us had grasping and disapproving children to contend with, and who needs money in old age if you've even one year of memories shared with someone you love, to look back on and relive?' The final sentence had the well-worn feel of something spoken many times.

'Thank you for giving me that year, Iris. Travel well.'

He draws my coat over her face and, with some difficulty, gets up. 'I think we should wait in your car. There's no point in me catching my death as well.' I smile inwardly, wondering if he is aware of the joke.

The ambulance arrives after we have only been in the car for a few minutes, and the business of despatching Iris is done briskly and reverently.

Gerald and I stand watching the ambulance disappear down the road.

Having no idea of the social etiquette for such occasions, I turn to Gerald. 'It's nice to have met you.' Doesn't seem right, somehow. 'I'm so sorry.' is all I can manage.

I fidget with the belt of my coat, waiting for some signal from Gerald as to what should happen next. Should I just say goodbye and go? He is still scanning the horizon as if Iris might have changed her mind and decided not to die after all. 'I can't just leave you, Gerald.'

I'm in uncharted waters.

Eventually Gerald heaves a sigh as turns to me. 'Thank you so much...'

'Clare,' I say, resisting the urge to shake hands. Even I know we are way past that stage. 'Clare Sweeting.'

'Well, I won't keep you.'

'It's no problem. The funeral will be over by now,' I say looking at my watch as if to confirm the fact. 'It was my aunt's. I came to the wrong church by mistake.'

'Oh.'

It dawns on me that Gerald is as much at a loss as I am about post-death etiquette. Would it seem inappropriate to suggest a drink? I know I could do with one, so I plunge in, regardless.

'I don't know about you, but I could do with a drink. I can see a pub over there.'

'Yes indeed, I think a brandy is definitely called for under the circumstances. Thank you.' In spite, or maybe because of, his obvious relief at not being left alone, Gerald's shoulders droop, and suddenly he looks his age.



When we have both taken a steadying sip of our brandies the silence is broken by a simultaneous 'What...?' 'How...?' We exchange a smile and Gerald gestures for me to speak.

'Were you visiting someone... a grave?' 'Yes and no. I've been doing some family history, and we were looking for my great-grandfather's grave.' Gerald takes another sip and places the glass carefully on the table, in the centre of the coaster. I appreciate the precision of this action.

'It's something that becomes important somehow as you get older. When you've lived most of your life, it seems that you need to know where you've come from and how you fit into the grand scheme of things. Not being religious, it's a way for me to understand what meaning our brief lives have.' Gerald sits back in the chair and closes his eyes. 'Especially after this morning.'

'Did you find him?'

'My great grandfather? No, we'd only just got there when...' he stares into the flickering fire and swallows. 'What about you? I'm guessing you're not from these parts if you came to the wrong church?'

'I live in London...' I pause, feeling that something more is required. 'I'm a pharmacist,' I add.

'And your aunt? Were you close?'

I'm not sure what Gerald means by 'close.' 'I'd not seen her for a few years, but we exchanged cards and wrote at Christmas.'

'Oh. Even so, I'm so sorry you missed the funeral. Won't your family be wondering where you are?'

I had been thinking the same thing but hadn't liked to get my phone out to check for messages. It hadn't seemed appropriate. But I took the opportunity now.

'Yes, probably. Would you excuse me if I check my phone?'

'Of course. Go ahead.'

Clare, where are you? You're usually the first to arrive at anything!

Followed by:

Getting worried, sis. Where are you? It's just about to start!

And then:

Really worried. Where are you? Ring me!

'Gerald, would you mind if I stepped outside to ring my brother. You're right. He's worried.

'Of course. Go ahead.'

'Tom, it's me. I'm okay. I just got... delayed.'

I explain about Gerald and Iris.

'So you're holed up in a pub with some old guy?'

'I couldn't just leave him, Tom!'

'No, it's okay. I get it. Just teasing. Are you alright though?'

I'm fine. How was the funeral?'

'Very Aunt Annie. Understated but with the maximum of fuss!'

We share a laugh.

'Say goodbye to her from me. Can we meet at the old place for a drink tomorrow?'

'Okay. See you then.'

I return to Gerald except that Gerald's chair is empty. Assuming he's in the Gents, I finish my brandy and wait. After fifteen minutes I wonder where he is and ask at the bar.

'Oh, he went out the back way while you were outside. Said to say thank you for your help.' The buxom landlady continues vigorously polishing glasses as she speaks.

I rush outside, but there is no sign of Gerald, and I realise I don't know which car was his, where he lives, or anything. I feel strangely betrayed.

On my way back to London, I convince myself that it's for the best. I'd probably never have seen him again anyway. This way saved an awkward goodbye, and the inevitable 'Let's keep in touch.'



The following evening is warm with early summer sun, and Tom and I sip our drinks at a table by the canal.

A rowdy group of football supporters make conversation almost impossible, and I'm wondering why we haven't gone somewhere quieter. Tom knows that I hate noisy places, but he seems oblivious, lost in a world of his own - in the sunlight dancing on the water. But this is not like him, so I grit my teeth and try to block out the noise with some deep breathing.

Eventually the fans decide to head for the next pub, and we are left in peace.

I wait for Tom to speak, but he says nothing. Lost in his own world.

'Tom, what is it? What's wrong?'

He puts his head in his hands pulling his fingers through the thick black curls that our mother used to adore. 'It's... I don't know... I don't know what to do.'

I feel a prickle of alarm. This isn't the laid-back, carefree Tom I'm used to.

'Tom. What is it?' I try to hide the panic in my voice.

'Kerry has thrown me out. When we got back last night.'

'What? Why?'

I feel a sudden spurt of anger towards the sister-in-law who has robbed me of my brother for the last few years. Who does she think she is, sitting on her phone all day, while Tom grafts long hours at the hospital to keep her high-maintenance life afloat?

'It's my fault. I had a bit of a fling at work.'

'Oh my God. Tom!'

'It was nothing, but she found out.'

'You can stay at mine until you two sort things out.' I pat his arm awkwardly. 'It'll be like the old days.' I can't resist a smile, but Tom bursts into an embarrassing bout of crying.

'Come on, let's get you home.' I'm aware of hostile stares already coming my way from the other drinkers.

Somehow, I get him out of the pub and we manage the short walk back to my flat.



Over the summer, I enjoy my newfound bond with Tom. Yes, he makes the flat look untidy and he never puts things away, but I can forgive him for that because I'm so glad to have him back - all to myself. When I'm with Tom, the little things don't seem to matter as much.

One evening, he comes home from another long shift and falls exhausted into his favourite chair. We've almost become an old married couple, with our own chairs - set in our ways. I love it.

'I had a patient today asking if I had a sister called Clare. Can you believe it?'

'Really?' I frown. My social circle is small - just people at work really, and I immediately think the worst. Someone stalking me, or some kind of scam, maybe. 'What was he called?'

'Gerald something-or-other.'

I sit up and look at Tom. 'Gerald? An old guy?'

'Well, yes! Gerald's not exactly a young person's name, is it?' Tom takes a long swig from his can of beer.

'Is he still there?'

'I should think so. He broke his hip in a fall so I had to do emergency surgery. I don't think he'll be going anywhere for a while.'

I stand up and start putting my jacket on.

'What...? Where are you going?'

'It's Gerald! You know, from the day of the funeral.'

'The old guy from the pub?'

'I think so. I need to go and see. Do you think they'll let me in?'

'Just say you're his granddaughter or something. They'll let next of kin in. You might need to be forceful.' Tom grins slyly at me. He knows I can do 'forceful' when I need to.



I arrive at Reception and ask for Gerald Dobbs in my most commanding voice, announcing myself as his granddaughter. The woman laconically examines her screen, picks up the phone and converses with someone in a low voice, eyeing me with hostility. Eventually, with some disappointment in her voice, she says, 'You can go up. Euston Ward. Third floor.'

I don't recognise the man in the corner bed, by the window. Gerald seems to have become a shrunken, paler version of the man I had met a few months before.

He recognises me, immediately. 'Hello, Granddaughter,' he says, a twinkle in his eye. 'So that doctor is your brother. I did wonder because Sweeting is an unusual name.'

'Yes, he mentioned you'd asked about me, and I knew it must be you. I don't know any other Geralds,' I add by way of explanation.

He smiles. Thank you so much for coming, Clare. It seems you are turning into my guardian angel - always there when I need help.'

I turn away to find a chair and return to sit beside the bed. 'How are you feeling?'

'Not too bad. Although, I'm thinking that the good times are well and truly over now. It's getting to the stage where those memories are going to come into their own.'

'You don't know that. Plenty of people make a complete recovery after hip surgery.' Gerald looks out of the window. I try to soften the tone. 'Although I can understand why you feel like that now.'

'They're trying to find me convalescent care in a nursing home because I live on my own. Everyone knows that once you go into those places, you only come out in a box.'

I'm at a loss. What should I say? Somehow, I know that platitudes are not what Gerald wants to hear.



A few weeks later I visit Gerald at The Pines - there is not a pine tree in sight. I am now his official granddaughter, apparently. He looks better, but I can tell he has lost his spark. Even the 'Hello, Granddaughter!' joke seems to have palled.

'Make the most of your life, Clare. This comes to us all in the end.' He gestures around the utilitarian, semi-medical room.

'Maybe I could bring you something to read? Or a puzzle book or something.' As soon as the words leave my mouth, I regret them. Gerald gives me a steady look over the rims of his glasses.

'Maybe not the puzzle book, then.'

As I stand to leave, he takes my hand. I freeze, unsure how to respond. 'Don't be afraid to get close to people, Clare. Don't make the mistake I made - leaving it all to the last minute.'

I find myself bending to kiss his cheek. 'See you soon... Grandad.'

'Thank you.'

On the journey home, I feel an unfamiliar warmth inside and only realise I'm smiling when the man opposite me smiles back. Fortunately, we are at my station, and I make a hurried exit from the train.



The following week I arrive to visit Gerald.

'Oh, are you here to see Mr Dobbs?'

'Yes, I am.'

The woman behind the desk, whose badge tells me she is Janine, shifts her weight from one foot to the other. 'I'm afraid he's gone.'

'What? Gone where?'

'No... Sorry, I mean gone - as in passed.' She emphasises the word in strangely unsettling sibilant whisper

I grip the counter to steady myself. 'He's dead?'

'Well, yes, although we prefer not to use that phrase here.' I detect an air of disapproval.

'What happened?'

'He just passed in his sleep, I'm afraid. We tried to ring you earlier,' she says defensively.

I don't know how to process the shock and time seems to stand still... until Janine breaks the spell.

'What arrangements would you like us to make?'

'Arrangements?'

'You're his granddaughter, aren't you? Down as his next of kin?'



Gerald's crematorium funeral, as laid out in his meticulous instructions, was attended by five people: myself and Tom, a colleague from the solicitor's office where he had worked, the lady who had cleaned for him for forty years, sobbing into a handkerchief, and the vicar - who hadn't known him at all.

I miss him.

6 comments:

  1. I've always enjoyed stories about unlikely encounters. Not to mention full-circle stories. Wonderful dialogue.

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  2. I like this, Sheena. You held my attention all the way through with the economy of your language—precise and effective without any padding descriptions. A believable narrator and a satisfying finish. Good job!
    Cameron Spencer

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for such a positive comment, Cameron

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  3. Monika R. MartynJune 1, 2022 at 6:44 PM

    Absolutely awesome story.!A great way to remind us all that the people next to us are vulnerable and that life is short!
    Thank you!

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  4. Very nicely done. The encounters between the characters had just the right amount of awkwardness to make them feel real. I like how they reconnected, and that the story ended with her attending his funeral (since she had missed her Aunt's funeral in the beginning of the story).

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